Trauma is any experience that overwhelms our ability to cope with it.
Read that again.
In other words, the deciding factor of whether an experience is traumatic or not, is whether it overwhelms your ability to cope with it.
What is NOT important? If a general group of people would also agree that it was serious enough. Or if people like you had a similar experience and also suffer in the same way. Or if it’s on a list of approved types of trauma.
By definition, your mind and body determine if something was traumatic.
So when I say “I believe you.” That’s what I mean.
How do people cope with trauma?
The way you cope with the stress of trauma will depend on a number of factors. This includes things like your general disposition, how much stress (aka physiological preparation) you had prior to the event (since small, manageable stress increases your ability to tolerate bigger stresses), the nature of the trauma, whether it was one major incident or a series of experiences, or different types of events, etc., and many other factors that basically comprise your internal and external resources.
Internal resources are things like emotional resilience, self-awareness and psychological insight, mental and emotional skills like the ability to reframe your thoughts, even a sense of humor. External resources are things like a support system of friends or family, access to healthcare, and frankly, a safe place to sleep every night.
The tricky part is that frequently, one way that we try to cope with traumatic events is to minimize them. That’s our brain trying not to be overwhelmed with the magnitude of the stress. This goes for events that overwhelm us physically, emotionally, or both.
Are you someone who minimizes your stress response as a way to cope with it?
“Other people have had it much worse than me. It was a long time ago and I’m fine now.”
“I don’t want to burden others with my problems.”
“Dwelling on the past won’t change it. What’s talking about it going to do?”
Recognizing the ways in which you might minimize your trauma may help you move forward to overcome it. (Remember that part about self-awareness being an important resource?) Here are three signs that you might be minimizing your trauma, and thereby actually prolonging or intensifying its effects:
1. You Consider Intense Mood Swings Typical
A common side effect of trauma is mood swings. Often, these mood swings manifest in several different ways. Common mood symptoms include agitation, trouble sleeping, irritability, and paranoia. It’s not just suddenly becoming really sad or angry, even if you’re having a good time. (Although that can also be a sign.)
You may even find yourself with a heightened sense of awareness after a traumatic incident. As a result, it’s not uncommon to experience more anxiety as well. Keep in mind that anxiety stemming from trauma can be intermittent or constant, mild or intense, random or tied to specific situations.
Although it’s common to experience minor mood swings, when they become severe and chronic, you may want to consider them more deeply. Remember, unresolved trauma frequently results in some type of mood swings.
If your mood swings are so intense that they impact your relationships, career, and overall wellness, it’s time to seek help. Mood swings of this level aren’t typical, and they can be a sign of unresolved trauma.
2. You Ignore Bodily Symptoms
As mentioned, downplaying trauma can be a coping mechanism. To function in your daily life, you might feel the need to convince yourself that a particular event wasn’t that bad.
It may seem much more comfortable to ignore your emotions and compartmentalize your negative thoughts. But physical symptoms like an upset stomach, chronic muscle tension, or even grinding your teeth at night are much harder to ignore. If you avoid making time to take care of your body, your body will pick a time for you.
Remember, your body and mind are deeply connected. Your body remembers the traumatic experience even when you may want to forget it. The tension in your body, for example, isn’t because you have a muscle issue. It’s your body trying to tell you that something is off balance in your mind. In other words, unexplained aches, pains, or tension is often your body’s plea for you to address unresolved trauma.
3. You Painfully Power Through
Sometimes, when a traumatic event happens, you are fully aware of how traumatizing it is. Mainly, you know that the experience will change you for the rest of your life. As a result, you may feel as though you’re “damaged” or somehow flawed, and yet, you still try to move forward with your life in the best way you can.
While this is incredibly brave, it’s also plenty hard to do. For example, those with unstable and erratic childhoods may have more emotional layers to navigate as adults. On the one hand, it can be easy to recognize that you had a bad childhood. On the other hand, figuring out how to navigate that as an adult can seem impossible. With added pressure to perform and provide for others, shame about your “weaknesses,” or trying to keep up appearances that you have your shit together, it’s no wonder that many people never find the time to address unresolved issues. Who has time for that? Instead, these feelings get swept under the rug.
Again, minimizing trauma is common; this world can make you feel bad for having emotions. More so, we live in a world that makes you feel bad for feeling bad about your problems. This mentality leads to a struggle for accepting and overcoming your traumas.
How to Overcome Your Trauma
Some argue that the only way to truly overcome trauma is to recognize and flesh it out fully. But, like you, it’s a little more complicated than that.
People resist addressing trauma because it can feel like re-hashing old stresses just makes them more overwhelming or even worse. Which is true. If done without safety and preparation, someone can trigger old trauma responses and even experience flashbacks.
That’s why friends and family may not be the best ones to help. Often, people will try to get you to talk about things or “open up,” with the best intentions. But if they don’t have the training and skill to keep you grounded, or are not prepared to make sure you feel safe and comfortable talking about it, they can actually make things worse.
Whatever your trauma may be, it’s crucial to let yourself feel what you may—grief, sadness, anger, etc. You are allowed to truly experience your emotions and attempt to overcome your trauma how you deem fit.
Allowing yourself to feel the feelings, per se, will empower you to validate any trauma-related emotions. This approach also helps you to identify areas in your life where you might be minimizing your traumatic experience.
Recognizing your mood swings, bodily symptoms, and a “powering through” mentality is a good start. Furthermore, there is no shame in seeking help and attempting to overcome your trauma. The sooner you allow yourself to stop minimizing your pain, the sooner your healing can begin.
Read more about the effects of trauma in high-achieving adults here.
Prospect Therapy welcomes individuals and couples of all genders and orientations in Long Beach and Seal Beach, CA. We are trained in trauma-focused cognitive therapies and can help you start to move past your past at a pace that is safe, comfortable, and effective. Click below to schedule your free consultation.