American author Laurell K. Hamilton once wrote, “There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
What do you think she meant by that? What are some “invisible wounds” that could hurt us and cut more deeply than physical pain? Well, one that would certainly come to a lot of people’s minds is trauma. And another would be loneliness, an often overlooked effect of experiencing trauma.
Psychologists have long since studied the link between trauma and loneliness, and they found that experiencing a traumatic event in the past can have severe and long-lasting effects on a person for years to come if left unresolved. So much so that even victims of childhood trauma continue to carry it and its detrimental effects with them well into adulthood (Rewire, 2020).
And unlike the kind of loneliness we sometimes feel when we become socially isolated, trauma-induced loneliness can feel a lot more overwhelming because it is rooted in a lived experience. In fact, researchers have found that trauma can often become a formative memory so strong that it changes the way our brain works. It sends our self-protective fight-or-flight system into a constant state of high alert and heightened emotional reactivity (Help Guide, 2022).
Psychologically speaking, trauma can also develop in us a “compulsion to repeat” even if we don’t realize it. That’s why so many children of divorce later end up divorced themselves, or victims of abusive relationships often find themselves stuck in the same abusive patterns even with different partners. The bottom line is, when it comes to trauma and loneliness, the past doesn’t always stay where it should.
With that said, here are some ways trauma can make us lonely (and signs it may be happening to you, too!):
1. You don’t enjoy the things you used to.
First and foremost, trauma can make it hard for us to feel positive emotions after being in such an intense state of distress. It’s for this same reason that war veterans, ex-convicts, and rehabilitated drug users, for example, tend to struggle with reintegration into society. The trauma they experienced makes it difficult for them to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives, and they often find themselves changed coming out on the other side of it. They don’t enjoy the things they used to anymore, and this lack of positive recreation and engagement in their day-to-day lives can make them feel lonely, restless, and confused (Hansen, 2010).
2. You’re too afraid to take chances anymore.
When studying the psychology of risk taking, researchers have found that the more secure you feel about who you are and where you are in your life, the more open you become to challenges and new experiences. Seems a bit counterintuitive, right? But actually, having all these positive experiences and relationships in your life helps to buffer the pain of rejection and minimize the fear of failure. People with trauma, however, are the opposite: they become too afraid to take a chance on themselves, a new opportunity, or a new relationship because they don’t think they have the emotional resiliency to deal with it, should things ever go wrong.
3. You find it hard to be optimistic.
Similar to the last point, trauma can make us lonelier not only by making us limit ourselves and what we achieve, but also by making us less optimistic and hopeful for the future. Victims of trauma can’t help but generalize their traumatic experience into an overall pessimistic worldview, which can then manifest as a habit of self-blame, passive helplessness, and keeping an emotional distance (Mental Health Center at Destination Hope, 2022). Which brings us to our next point…
4. You find it hard to connect with people.
People who have been traumatized find it hard to trust others and open themselves up again. And if you’ve ever tried helping someone who’s been through trauma, then you’d know that oftentimes their first instinct is to go into denial and self-isolate, which only makes their loneliness worse (Palgi, et al., 2012). People also tend to worry about saying the wrong thing around them, no matter how close they used to be, and say nothing instead. But this only makes them feel more alone and misunderstood, because their silence might be taken as indifference or judgment on the other person’s part, making it harder to connect with them.
5. You feel misunderstood by everyone.
Sometimes, we can feel our loneliest in a room full of people who love us, especially when it feels like no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to understand. But feeling misunderstood is a common experience not only amongst trauma victims but for anyone struggling with their mental health as well. And no matter how good their intentions might be, the more they try to understand us and fail, the more it just hurts and makes us feel more alone in our suffering.
6. Your trauma still defines a lot of your life.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, it can be hard not to feel lonely when we feel like our trauma has taken away so much from us already, like our sense of safety, our sense of self, our optimism, and our motivation to achieve. We struggle to move on from it because it has come to define a lot about our identity and our life, lingering in ways we don’t even realize. Unexplained symptoms, avoidant behaviors, emotional outbursts — these are just a few ways in which our unresolved trauma can continue to have an effect on us even years after it’s all said and done (Zeligman, Bialo, Brack & Kearney, 2017).
The good news, however, is that even the deepest of suffering is only temporary. And by surrounding ourselves with a good support system and making an effort to seek professional help, we can overcome any loneliness, grief, or trauma that is keeping us from flourishing in life.
So open up to a loved one about your struggles, learn more about it, and reach out to a mental healthcare expert today. Connecting with people who have gone through similar experiences (such as in a support group or group therapy setting) can also help you feel less alone.
Whatever small step you choose to take towards healing, always remember that moving on doesn’t mean forgetting and healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It just means that the trauma no longer controls your life because you’ve learned to grow around it. In the wise words of Haruki Murakami, “Of course life frightens me sometimes. I don’t happen to take that as the premise for everything else though.”
- Help Guide. (30 August 2022) “Emotional and Psychological Trauma.” Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/coping-with-emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm
- Rewire (9 January 2020). “The Side-Effect of Trauma We Rarely Address: Loneliness.” Retrieved 6 September 2022 from https://www.rewire.org/loneliness-trauma-side-effect/
- Mental Health Center at Destination Hope. “How Childhood Trauma Affects Us as Adults.” Retrieved 6 September 2022 from https://www.mentalhealthcenter.org/how-childhood-trauma-affects-adult-relationships/
- Hansen, D. E. (2010). Intimacy, loneliness, and social withdrawal as a result of emotional trauma. Journal of Behavioral Psychology, 19(22), 114-120.
- Palgi, Y., Shrira, A., Ben-Ezra, M., Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Ayalon, L. (2012). Self-and other-oriented potential lifetime traumatic events as predictors of loneliness in the second half of life. Aging & mental health, 16(4), 423-430.
- Zeligman, M., Bialo, J. A., Brack, J. L., & Kearney, M. A. (2017). Loneliness as moderator between trauma and posttraumatic growth. Journal of Counseling & Development, 95(4), 435-444.