Maybe you’re suffering from unresolved trauma too (part 1)

There are a lot of misconceptions about trauma. People think of it as a single, isolated event. People think trauma is always obvious and only happens in the case of a life-threatening situation. People believe we can control our body and how it reacts when faced with a possible traumatic event. People don’t realize trauma is more disruptive the younger it’s encountered.

In my last blogpost I tried to give you some insights into what trauma is, how it works and the role our body plays in this whole story. I also used my own personal life to illustrate some of the ideas, which honestly is quite stressful to do. At the same time I’ve experienced that writing this down and sharing it, has taken away some of the gravity. I honestly believe that opening up – which means trusting others – , getting recognition for what happened and listening to our body are the most important components of healing.

 

SYMPTOMS OF UNRESOLVED TRAUMA

For over ten years I’ve gone from one problem to the other. In this blogpost I want to share some common ‘symptoms’ that might be related to your past without you even noticing.

  •  Physical symptoms that have no identifiable explanation, they might shift from time to time

 As I explained in my previous blog posts, our body adapts when faced with a possible threat. We go into a flight-fight-freeze mode, which helps us to survive. Unfortunately sometimes our brain doesn’t get the signals that we’re safe again (because maybe we aren’t or because maybe we need to protect ourselves to never experience this distress again). This all happens out of our consciousness. Since our body still thinks we’re being attacked (one way or another), it stays hyper-alert or eventually shuts down.

Our body has this energy stuck inside that doesn’t get a chance to be released, since a characteristic of most traumas is that we feel an inability to act. This built up stress can lead to multiple outcomes.

Common symptoms are: headaches, a racing heartbeat, fatigue, problems sleeping, changes in eating habits, chronic muscle pains and panic attacks.

Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves. ― Bessel A. van der Kolk

Personal story time:

As a kid I complained of stomach pains a lot. In high school this evolved to headaches. I also still feel tired a lot of the time. I get my blood works done on the regularly but they never seem to find anything wrong.

On my 20th birthday I had my first panic attack, in a bar with my boyfriend watching a football game (Belgium vs Argentina in the World Cup, very important). I thought it must have been because of the crowd and the heat. During the summer I avoided busy places and felt anxious when I needed to be among people. The panic attacks happened a couple more times and then just disappeared. Now I can go to parties and festivals without experiencing any anxiety (except about how I look of course).

 

  • Participating in risky or self-destructing behaviour, addiction of all sorts

 Since our body is in constant hyper-arousal or has shut itself down, it’s quite easy to understand why some people would find solace in drugs of any kind. It can finally make us feel something or it can numb us down. It can give us the self-esteem and confidence we’re missing. It can make us forget. Neurological research shows that there are disruptions in the brains of people with childhood trauma. This makes them more vulnerable to substance abuse disorders since these anomalies result in cognitive, behavioral and social impairments. This can also explain why people would engage in risky or self-destructive behaviour.

Personal story time:

As a kid I already had a difficult relationship with food. I always wanted to be the skinniest one, even in elementary school. As a teenager I would go through cycles of starving myself, followed by overeating. Around the age of 13 I started hurting myself. This didn’t last for more than a year. At the age of 15 I smoked my first joint (more on this topic in the next section). I still sometimes drink to boost my confidence and put myself out there.

  • A need for control

As a child, we learned that we have little to no control over our environment. We were subjected to the trauma and didn’t feel like we could change the situation. Our environment was often unpredictable and chaotic. I believe that’s why it’s common that when we grow up, we like things to be the way we imagined it. If we decide how everything goes, we know what to expect.

Personal story time:
I’m one of those people who would rather do a project alone than in a group, since I don’t know how other people will act. I get upset when my boyfriend decides to cycle another way than usual, without asking me first. I don’t like it when I don’t know what’s happening around me, when people are behaving differently. I had to stop smoking weed since I would get really anxious when I felt like I wasn’t in control of my body anymore. This would get to the point where I was on the verge of a psychosis. I stopped smoking or drinking alcohol at the age of 16 and only started drinking again (moderately) when I was 21.

 

  • Nightmares with a reoccurring theme

 Half of the people suffering from PTSD, have flashbacks to the trauma while dreaming. Hartmann (1996) said that dreaming allows the brain to make connections more efficiently and effectively than the conscious mind. It’s a way for the brain to work through trauma. He also said that the dreams are often based on the main emotion the person experienced during the trauma. This makes sense since we know that a lot of the aspects of the trauma get stored in the unconscious parts of our brains.

Personal story time:

Between the age of 6 and 11 I commonly had the same nightmare. I was cycling on the road that leads up to our house. There is a ditch running alongside the road. Monsters would crawl out of this ditch and try to grab me. I would fall down, unable to scream or move.

In the last year I mostly have dreams with one central theme: me not being part of the group, other people hating me. I dream that my family spits me out and my friends don’t want me anymore.


That’s it for now!

This all might seem like a lot to overcome and I’m not even done yet. In my next blogpost I will share other symptoms of trauma such as: trust issues, feeling like you don’t fit in, lack of memories and more. I will once again provide you with examples from my own life. I also want to add that while trauma is a lot to handle, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. There are tons of things we can do on our own and there is a large pool of professionals out there to help us along the way. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s one of the bravest things you can do.

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