What is trauma? When most people think of trauma, they think of things like natural disasters, witnessing or experiencing violence, or the experiences of soldiers in combat, and they would certainly be right. However, trauma can also occur from less obvious experiences, such as bullying, growing up in a dysfunctional home, negative experiences at school, or other experiences that we deem “part of the human experience”. One of the leading experts in the field of trauma, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, defines trauma as being any event in which the central nervous system is overwhelmed, and we are unable to integrate or process what is happening. Unresolved trauma changes both the way we remember and react to events in our lives. When trauma occurs during our childhood, it can greatly affect our development in ways that as adults we are often not even aware of.
Here is a list of the 3 most common ways unresolved trauma affects development:
People who are hypervigilant are always assessing their surroundings. They pay very close attention to what is going on around them, as well as the emotional states and physical reactions of others. Hypervigilant individuals are often very good at reading other people. They also struggle to relax, and find it nearly impossible to “shut off” their brains. Hypervigilance greatly affects our ability to focus our attention on one thing. Therefore, individuals who are stuck in hypervigilance have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, and being mentally and emotionally present in the moment.
Chronic hypervigiliance can lead to anxiety disorders, OCD, ADHD/ADD (this is still being studied), insomnia, and a host of other physical issues.
- Emotional Dysregulation
The ability to regulate our emotions is a skill that we develop throughout childhood and adolescence. However, individuals with unresolved trauma often struggle to effectively assess and regulate their emotions. Individuals who are emotionally dysregulated often overreact or underreact to situations. For example, they may become irate over something that typically would only cause a minor irritation to most people. They may also seem “emotionally unstable” as they can oscillate between emotional extremes within a very short period of time.
In contrast, individuals who struggle with emotional regulation can also underreact to situations. These are the individuals often seem to have a “flat” affect, or an appearance that they don’t feel anything.
The inability to regulate one’s emotions is often dealt with through the use of numbing behaviors such as substance abuse, self-harm, and other addictive behaviors.
- Relationship Problems
Trauma greatly affects our ability to have healthy, meaningful relationships. Individuals with unresolved trauma often develop unhealthy relationship patterns such as:
- Aggressive, controlling, or violent behavior.
- Insecure, needy, and manipulative behaviors; A constant need for validation.
- Passive, inability to stand up for oneself (pushover), the need to please everyone, unable to say “no.
- The need to continuously rescue others, or always needing to be rescued.
Because our brains are unable to integrate a traumatic experience (without the help of therapy), it is as if the experience is still happing to us in the present. Therefore, anything that triggers a traumatic memory will cause our brains and bodies to respond as if the trauma is currently happing.
It is important to understand that unresolved trauma has many symptoms, and that this is by no means an exhaustive list of those symptoms. However, trauma research has shown that that unresolved trauma (especially childhood trauma) greatly affects these key areas of development. Trauma changes the way we see the world, ourselves, and those around us. The good news is, there is hope! Thanks to breakthroughs in trauma research and neuroscience, we now have proven, effective treatments for unresolved trauma. While our past experiences may have influenced our beliefs and behaviors, these experiences do not have to determine our future!