5 Harmful Behaviors That Are Actually Your Trauma Response

Do you sometimes do things that you know are bad for you but feel like you can’t help yourself? Or behave in negative ways you don’t understand? According to clinical social worker Kaytee Gillis, sometimes harmful behavior patterns develop as a response to psychological trauma. 

We may learn to react and behave in ways that helped us overcome the traumatic experience but ultimately harm us in the long-term. For example, some people become more aggressive towards others as a trauma response, but end up struggling with their relationships and emotion regulation as a result. 

With that said, here are 5 more examples of harmful behaviors you may be engaging in that are actually your trauma response:

Social Withdrawal

According to psychotherapist Kaytee Gillis, social withdrawal is a common trauma response because of two reasons: First, trauma harms its victims’ self-esteem, and second, it negatively impacts their view of the world. Victims will often begin to see the world as dangerous and unsafe, others as malicious and untrustworthy, and themselves as damaged and unworthy. Social withdrawal as a trauma response may manifest as: spending less time with loved ones, making less of an effort to stay in touch, not wanting to go out or have people over, and getting nervous when someone gets too close to us. 

Lashing Out

Aside from withdrawing socially, trauma victims also tend to push away other people by lashing out at them. Anger is a common reaction to trauma, explains psychologist Dr. Seth J. Gillihan, and it can persist long after the traumatic event ends. You may feel anger at yourself for what happened, at others for not seeing it or helping you sooner, or at the world in general when you’re unable to make sense of it all. This anger is often accompanied by sadness, fear, and anxiety — all of which can make a person incredibly emotionally volatile. So if you’ve been wondering why you tend to hurt the people you love without meaning to or find yourself lashing out for no good reason, this may be why.

Overworking Yourself

Do you feel a strong need to constantly keep yourself busy? And have difficulty relaxing or enjoying yourself when you’re not? Do you feel anxious when you have nothing to do? According to psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz, people like this use their work as a way to keep themselves occupied and avoid difficult thoughts or emotions, like those related to unhealed trauma. So it’s possible that you may be overworking yourself to avoid thinking about what happened or confronting your feelings on the matter, which is harmful to your mental health not only because it keeps your psychological wounds from healing but also because having a poor work-life balance can be emotionally and mentally draining, says Dr. Klontz. 

Freezing Up

According to an article published by Life Stance Health, freezing up is a common trauma response, especially when the nature of the trauma has led the victim to believe that they’re better off making themselves as non-threatening or unresponsive as possible. Some examples of how an unhealthy freeze response can manifest include: dissociating, frequently “zoning out” or having “brain fog”, becoming emotionally numb, difficulty making decisions or taking action, and a paralyzing fear of trying new things. Furthermore, clinical psychologist Dr. Nathan Greene says that a long-term freeze response can come to resemble a mask you use to protect yourself when you can’t identify any means of fighting back or escaping. People with this trauma response may use fantasy or imagination to escape; hide their true feelings; and mentally check out from stressful or painful situations.


Finally, we have fawning. An often overlooked trauma response, fawning refers to behaviors that aim to please, appease, or pacify others in an effort to avoid conflict, harm, or stress. This phenomenon was first studied by therapist Pete Walker, who often observed that survivors of childhood abuse and trauma would often learn to please the person threatening them and keep them happy as a way of making themselves feel safe. Some signs that you may have a fawning response include: doing things for others you don’t want to, over-apologizing, struggling to say no, having difficulty expressing your own needs and feelings, and feeling guilty about receiving help from others. 

So, what are your thoughts on this video? Do any of the things we’ve talked about here resonate with you? 

As mental healthcare professional Kaytee Gillis said, understanding how our maladaptive behaviors are rooted in our past trauma can help us to develop a more compassionate understanding of ourselves and take the first step towards healing. Trauma-informed care can help us live happier and more fulfilling lives, unconstrained by a traumatic past. So don’t hesitate to talk to someone about it or reach out to a mental health care professional today. 


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