Misconceptions about Trauma

8 minutes

When the unthinkable happens, our body is built to survive. The nervous system goes into high gear, employing its ingenious methods of getting us through to face another day. The idea that trauma has an effect on us long afterwards is now widely accepted, but what the hangover of trauma actually looks like can seem confusing. Expectations are that a traumatized person will seem upset or appear afraid, shaking, crying or zoning out – going into a far off memory of the past. While this can be, trauma and how the nervous system helps us through can look different than expectations lead us to believe.

Misconceptions about trauma are important to name because what often keeps us trapped in trauma responses is the idea that we might not be that bad. We don’t look like the trembling heap in a corner so we must be fine. We may even be doing things that are opposite of every expectation. This is actually more common than most people imagine, leading to many people dealing with traumatic experiences to slip under the radar of even close friends and family. Here are 5 trauma coping styles that look different than what is commonly expected.

5 common coping styles for trauma

1. Achievers

Big life events often drive big choices that lead to amazing things. Traumatizing events can be an invitation to see life differently, elevating us to new levels we would never have expected after hurt and pain. But there are functional and dysfunctional levels to this pattern. It can be functional – helpful – to take a new path, be more true to ourselves or rediscover a purpose through a trauma. On the other hand, being constantly busy gives our brain little space to process the emotions keeping us trapped in a trauma response.

There are many rewards of being willing to put the rest of life on hold and give all our attention to a job, a responsibility, a career. When hard work tips from helpful to unhelpful, the balance between joy and work gets blurred. We can get burnt out or compromise healthy boundaries for the sake of achievement. We might start to pin all happiness and self worth on doing things right – never being satisfied with good enough. And certainly not tolerating slacking off or failure.

Tricky thing is that if we are caught in this response it may feel like we are doing what is good for us or our family. Being hard working is praised and may carry rewards that make it attractive for more reasons than just it’s ability to distance us from traumatic responses. It may not become apparent until later that all the hard work was a distraction – a way to fight off the alarm bell ringing in our nervous system.

2.Eating Disorders

Food and eating patterns can be used to numb the nervous system when it’s overwhelmed. When it’s detached and suppressed, behaviors related to food can also energize and revitalize. What we do with food can bring our nervous system back to life or switch it off, depending on what we need to cope with the effects of trauma.

Like the rewards that blur the role of achievement as trauma response, eating issues are linked with body image and rewards that come with some body changes. The constant pressures we can feel to fulfill a certain standard of appearance can become such an intense focus that trauma is nearly forgotten. Additionally, society reinforces the concept of food as a comfort to the extent that we see it as normal to switch off emotions with food.

Restriction of calories – not eating enough – takes an enormous amount of willpower and focus. In effect, our attentional tank gets used up on one thing leaving no room for unpleasant trauma take up space. There are also theories that anorexia itself might cause a nervous, restless energy read more about that from the NIH here. Like overworking and achievement, I have wondered with clients about the usefulness of being body-focused, restless and hyperactive, especially when depression and pain are knocking at the door.

3.Sensation seeking

It is difficult enough when we can pinpoint the thing that set off the alarm bell in our nervous system. Even then turning off the alarm is not easy. There are also forms of trauma that are less obvious. The alarm bell is ringing so much that it feels normal – even comfortable. When life is calm and chaos-free, it feels wrong and sets some in search of something to make it loud again. Risky sex, tumultuous relationships, adrenaline-fueled pursuits, dangerous sports or even picking fights can all be ways to cope with trauma for some people.

Growing up in families that seem fine on the surface but where basic emotional needs are not met – when a parent is withdrawn, self absorbed or unpredictable among other things – can be common scenarios where children get used to the inner alarm bell ringing. In any situation where chaos feels more normal than calm, sensation seeking might be a trauma response.

4.Mood Swings

Happy to sad to worried on a regular basis? The ability to recognize and regulate emotion comes with a nervous system that is balanced. While it’s normal for emotions to fluctuate and not be predictable, it signals a problem if we feel we are the at mercy of extreme mood variations on a regular basis.

It can often be a sign that the nervous system is swinging between high alert (fight/flight mode) and turning off (numb/submit mode). The healthy wave of emotions have been thrown out of balance and into the extreme. If there has been a source of trauma, it can be valuable to recognize these swings as the body’s attempt to regulate, rather than us losing control. When it’s super ramped up, it will try to find ways to get us back down. At times, especially when we are not aware of what’s happening, we do things that make us overshoot and get too low – which is also uncomfortable and leads to a swing in the other direction. In these cases, developing an emotional awareness and set of flexible real world coping skills is useful.

5. People pleasing

While most people are familiar with the fight/flight response to anxiety and even to trauma, we might be less aware of the term ‘fawn’ as a trauma response. We are biologically geared to attach to others as a way to create safety. Babies look for caregivers when afraid and as adults we find ways to stick people to us as a means to feel better, less afraid and anxious.

Outwardly this might look like just being nice. But there is a difference between kindness and generosity that is motivated by compassion and actions that are driven by a need to not be rejected. Trauma can take a toll on self worth, making some feel unworthy of love without lots of effort. Attach or fawn reactions to trauma might look like striving to keep unhealthy people close even when this causes harm mentally or physically. It may also show up as trying to fit in even when it means things that go against our values. Or churning worries about what people think of us. This trauma response makes it feel ok to sacrifice a lot for the sake of other people – it may feel impossible to say no.

For those in helping professions: For some, being able to read and predict people was – and is – a way to feel safe. Many therapists and people drawn into helping professions have learned to deal with their trauma through attach/fawn behaviors. This may make them excellent empaths, but lacking the skills to manage their own needs in a healthy manner. I can attest to my own journey into psychology being driven by the desire to understand people that hurt me. Although it has been a rewarding career, eventually I had to reckon with the fact that knowing the answers to help others didn’t always mean I was applying it to myself. I was also able to form very deep relationships with others while still keeping them at a distance. Like others who fall into this category as a way to cope with trauma, I had to start to ask myself some questions about what healthy relationships should look like and whether I was working towards them or just treading water hoping to not upset or anger others. My own healing required me to look closely at the relationships in my life and how vulnerable and real I was being in them.

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Trauma can be debilitating but it is also something you can come back from. So, if you identify with any of these, reach out for help. It can feel overwhelming to begin to focus on the problem and finding solutions can feel impossible; however, you are not alone in the journey.  If you need help, talk to a supportive friend, speak to your doctor or find a therapist.  Therapy offers a place to process trauma and the effects on our lives.  Working with a therapist can help you to find confidence in your ability to cope and heal. 

You can contact me by sending me a message on my contact page. I offer free 15 minute phone consultations to address questions about how therapy can help you.