In my last post, “What Makes An Event Traumatizing?”, I discussed various situations that can cause trauma. Many people are surprised to learn that even something like losing a job or witnessing a crime can be traumatizing. The common factor that causes an event to be traumatizing is helplessness. When we feel helpless to escape or rise up in a situation that’s terrifying, traumatization may be the result.
Many people have asked me how they can know an event has traumatized them. We may not remember that an event or circumstance was traumatic. We may have memories that are painful but not categorize them as traumatic. So how do we know if we have unhealed trauma?
I encourage people to look at their lives to see if there are signs that things are “off” or unsettled. I’m going to list some things you can watch for to learn whether you may have unhealed trauma, but first let me say this: if any of these signs are present in your life – even if you don’t have traumatic memories – it’s worth reaching out to a pastor, trusted friend or mental health professional to talk more about possible underlying causes.
Changes in Mood
Do you find yourself snapping angrily at people? feeling very anxious that someone will abandon you? experiencing sadness or even despair without knowing what’s causing it? People who’ve experienced trauma sometimes find their feelings overwhelming and seemingly unexplainable. They don’t understand why they have such strong emotional reactions when difficult situations arise. If your mood shifts suddenly, there’s a reason. You may not understand it, but your feelings are meant to be signposts. They show you what’s happening internally (if you’re paying attention to them). This is why it’s unhealthy to simply stuff an emotion or push it to the background for long periods of time. If you do this, it’s like ignoring the “Check Engine” light on your dashboard. Eventually the car will stop working.
Struggles in Relationships
Do you notice that you sometimes withdraw suddenly from conversation? defend yourself adamantly when there’s conflict? find yourself either shutting off your desire for connection or clinging desperately to a person you love? Most traumatizing events include a betrayal or loss of trust with another person. If you’ve been hurt deeply by someone at some time in your life, that pain will affect your current relationships while that wound is unhealed. And it’s not necessarily because you haven’t forgiven that person or because you don’t trust God with your pain. It may be because that memory was placed in your “procedural memory,” the part of your brain that records threat and works hard to keep those same threats from causing danger again. For example, if my parents divorced when I was a child and my father left and cut off relationship with me, I may have a deep fear of abandonment from those close to me. I may assume that when there’s an argument, my loved one will walk away and never return. The memory of my parents’ divorce is activating, showing me how to guard against further damage.
Do you have trouble sleeping? unexplained body aches? digestive issues? back problems? headaches? Obviously, all these symptoms could have various causes. But when a person has been traumatized, his body doesn’t fully go back to a state of rest after the traumatic event. He is continuing in a state of hyper-vigilance, watching for the next bad thing to happen. This causes massive stress on the body. Certain hormones course through the body, sending signals that a threat of harm is imminent. Living in this state can cause all the symptoms listed above. People sit in my office and say that they don’t know why they can’t rest. They feel frustrated that they’re always tense and can’t seem to settle down. Some of these people, as they process with me, discover that they have unhealed trauma.
What should I do if I think I have unhealed trauma?
My next post will begin to answer this question. But I’ll say again that if you’re struggling, the best thing you can have is another person. We are designed to walk this journey of life with others. Never alone. Talk to someone you trust. Ask for prayer. Seek help. This doesn’t mean you’re weak. It actually means you’re strong. You’re taking dominion.