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When you hear the word trauma you might be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me. I’ve never been the victim of a violent crime or in a war.” But defining any psychological trauma can be hard because it’s such an individual experience. I’ve been working with people for over 35 years, and I can tell you that what traumatizes you might not traumatize someone else.
This is why you might not realize you’re dealing with unhealed trauma, because you or someone else might be minimizing your experience. (You say to yourself: “I’m over-reacting, that wasn’t a big deal” or your brother says: “I grew up in the same house you did, and it didn’t bother me!” Today I’m going to cover the 4 signs of unhealed trauma and how it might be ruining your relationship.
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How Do You Define Trauma Exactly?
Trauma is caused by either one harmful or distressing event or experience or a series of such experiences that impact your ability to cope and function in a healthy way.
As I’ve mentioned before, trauma is sometimes hard to pinpoint (and it’s why you might not realize you’ve had it) because what’s traumatic to one person, might not be traumatic to another. We’re born with certain temperaments and into families at different times in their evolution, we’ve got different genders, and all kinds of other factors that make each person’s childhood slightly different, even when they’re raised in the same family. So how your dad acted as a parent might not have affected your older brother but might have had a negative impact on you.
Trauma can come from neglect just as easily as it comes from overt physical or sexual abuse. What I find with many of my clients is that they don’t identify something as traumatic because objectively they think, “Well, I grew up in a good home – intact family, money, best schools, so there was no trauma.” But, when you drill down, maybe their parents never had time for them and they were shunted off to nannies or other care givers. Maybe they had an older sibling who bullied them. Maybe they had an undiagnosed learning disability and didn’t live up to their potential, which was always an issue. Maybe they were told they were a drama queen growing up because they showed emotion. There are many ways for us to be left feeling like there’s something wrong with us or that we’re not worthy of love resulting in unresolved trauma that shows up in later relationships.
Trauma Changes Your Brain
It’s common for people who’ve experienced trauma to have brain changes, which result in hypervigilance, spotty memory, emotional reactivity and poor impulse control.
Traumatic stress has been associated with lasting changes to the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex:
- The amygdala, which is your emotional and instinctual center hence the issues with being more reactive emotionally and lacking impulse control.
- The hypothalamus, which releases stress-inducing hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine.
- The hippocampus, which controls memory. Trauma also leads to reduced activity in the hippocampus. One of the jobs of your hippocampus is to recognize between past and present. When it’s not working right, your brain can’t tell the difference between the actual traumatic event and the memory of it so it’ll perceive things that trigger a memory of a traumatic event as a threat in the moment.
- And the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating your emotions and impulses. When your amygdala is activated, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t work effectively, so have a difficult time controlling your fear and you might get stuck in a reactive state.
Witnessing a Trauma
Unhealed trauma can also be due to witnessing a trauma. Research has shown that being exposed to trauma can create changes in the brain making someone “overreact” to a sound, sudden movement or facial expression years after the event.
There was a study done looking at the effects of 9/11 here in the United States where they found that participants who were within 1.5 miles of the World Trade Center on 9/11 “had significantly higher bilateral amygdala activity to fearful versus calm faces compared to those who were living more than 200 miles away.” In the study’s summary the authors stated: “These results show that exposure to traumatic events in the past was associated with emotional responses several years later in people who were close to the initial trauma. Yet, the participants did not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, depression or anxiety at time of imaging.”
But How Does It Affect My Relationship Now?
When you’ve got unhealed trauma of any kind, you’re going to experience triggers in your relationship(s) but not realize you’re even being triggered (especially if you’re not thinking you’ve even experienced trauma)! Your partner will unintentionally do something, you get triggered and “overreact” and then end up feeling like you’re crazy!
Let’s say your trauma is that you had parents who were emotionally distant. This results in kids feeling abandoned and/or unworthy of love. In your adult relationship, whenever your partner comes home late, you get super upset. You assign a lot of meaning to this action: “They don’t love me. If they cared, they’d call or make it a priority to never be late.” You feel rejected, abandoned or powerless.
Maybe you witnessed your parents fighting a lot when you were a kid and sometimes your dad would walk out and you’d hear threats of divorce (although they never did). In your current relationship, you and your partner are having a simple disagreement but you feel overwhelmed with emotion and either get enraged or cry uncontrollably. You’re told you blow things out of proportion, but it doesn’t feel that way to you in the moment.
Here are 4 signs that you might have unhealed trauma:
1. Major Trust Issues
This can show up everywhere! Maybe you find yourself no longer listening to your parents’ advice or thinking your friends are full of crap when they offer suggestions for how to move on. You think that therapy is just people getting paid to listen to your problems. Or maybe you get into a relationship but don’t trust your partner. Maybe you’re constantly checking their phone to see what they’re really up to or you don’t believe them when they say they love you. You basically don’t feel safe in your relationship. Doubt starts to show up everywhere, which brings us to sign #2…
2. Low Self-Esteem
If you’ve been in a traumatic relationship, you end up not trusting yourself (How could I have picked that guy? What was I thinking? Why did I stay with her for so long?). You feel like you can’t trust your decisions or your own judgment. This often extends past relationships and into work and other areas of your life. You lose confidence in yourself and don’t feel safe with your own thoughts and feelings.
3. Emotional Stuckness
Basically, something will trigger you and you’ll either get stuck in an “off” or “on” position. The “off” position shows up as exhaustion or fatigue, emotional numbness, disconnection and disassociation. Or, you might get stuck in an “on” position which results in what we call “emotional flooding.” Maybe you drive by the restaurant you and your ex used to frequent and all of a sudden you’re crying uncontrollably. Or maybe you overreact when you’re confronted by a friend or coworker and become enraged. This is emotional flooding.
4. Annoying Physical Symptoms.
There’s been a lot of research showing the physical toll unresolved trauma has on the body. Mostly, it all seems to stem from being on high alert all the time. Our bodies simply weren’t built for that; you were only supposed to experience these types of physical responses in the five minutes before you died – not for hours a day, year after year!
Symptoms associated with unresolved trauma include:
- Increased inflammation and arthritis
- Heart attacks
- Weakened immune system
- Chronic pain including migraine and headaches
- GI issues including colitis, constipation and IBS
While I strongly recommend therapy if any of these signs are familiar to you or striking a chord somewhere, you can also use grounding techniques to help stop your fight/flight/freeze response from hijacking your brain. Enter your name and email below to grab my free Grounding Exercises!
3 Keys to Building Trust in Your Relationship
8 Ways to Build Your Confidence and Self-Esteem
Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain
Press Release: Exposure to Trauma Can Affect Brain Function in Healthy People Several Years after Event; May Increase Susceptibility to Mental Health Problems in the Future, American Psychological Association, 2007.
Matthew T. Tull and Nathan A. Kimbrel, eds., Emotion in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Etiology, Assessment, Neurobiology, and Treatment (Elsevier Academic Press, 2020).
“Past Trauma May Haunt Your Future Health,” Harvard Health Online, February 12, 2021.