One of the greatest minds of psychology, theorist and therapist Carl Jung once said, “Until you learn to make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” His work, and many others in the field, reflects this desire we all have to delve deeper into our unconscious and understand the parts of ourselves that shape a lot of our views and actions without us even realising it. But while it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about this topic, did you know that past trauma can be one of these unconscious influences?
While the American Psychological Association (2013) defines trauma as life-threatening experiences, trauma is about more than just finding yourself in seriously dangerous life-or-death situations. It can also come from the experiences of loss or psychological and emotional abuse. And if left unresolved, this trauma can manifest in a lot of negative cognitive, behavioral, or even physiological ways. With that said, here are 7 ways your past trauma may still be hurting you in the present:
1. You have anger management problems.
When we think of someone who is traumatized or still struggling with the psychological wounds of their past, we often picture them as despondent, anxious, or even depressed. But anger is also a common (but often overlooked) sign of this, too, especially among men. So if you have a history of anger management problems but don’t quite know why or feel that you can’t help it, it might be because of an unconscious desire to suppress or displace your emotional distress from unresolved trauma. (Amstadter, & Vernon, 2008).
2. You struggle with intrusive thoughts.
Those who have been exposed to a traumatic experience, especially if left unresolved, are highly at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. And one of the most tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress is having intrusive thoughts, which are recurring unwanted thoughts, often related in some way to the trauma, that are extremely distressing in nature (American Psychological Association, 2013). These are often accompanied by strong feelings of guilt and anxiety, and can also manifest as nightmares or flashbacks.
3. Your emotional intelligence needs improvement.
Defined as “the ability to understand and regulate own and others behaviors,” emotional intelligence (or EQ for short) is an important determinant of a person’s mental well-being, self-esteem, relationship satisfaction, and overall quality of life (Cotrus, Stanciu & Bulborea, 2012). People who have a high EQ tend to achieve success, realize their full potential, and have more positive relationships with themselves and others. Unresolved trauma, however, can decrease a person’s self-awareness, ability to regulate their emotions, and ability to relate to and connect with others, which would reflect a low EQ that needs improvement.
4. You have addictive tendencies.
Psychologists have found that some people tend to be at greater risk for developing addictions — be it substance addictions or behavioral addictions (such as gambling, shopping, gaming, compulsive eating, overexercising, or even gossip, drama, and relationships) — because of certain personality traits (like low self-control and high need for excitement) and behavioral patterns. These behavioral patterns are called addictive tendencies and they are often triggered by traumatic experiences that cause us to cope in problematic and maladaptive ways.
5. You have avoidant tendencies.
Next is having avoidant tendencies, which is common for people who have experienced trauma. The most common examples of these are social withdrawal (i.e., canceling plans and just being by oneself most of the time) and emotional withdrawal (i.e., pushing people away, feeling emotionally numb). These avoidant tendencies tend to manifest because of a desire to avoid anything that reminds them of the past and avoid any intense emotions that may arise because of it (Hansen, 2010).
6. You have poor/unfulfilling relationships.
Similar to the last point, one tell-tale sign that your past trauma is still hurting you in the present is if you struggle with unfulfilling, poor quality relationships. This can mean that your relationships lack meaning and emotional connection, or that you have difficulty maintaining them in the long-term because of a tendency to self-sabotage. Either way, this fear of emotional vulnerability and wariness to get close to others is likely to stem from a previous traumatic experience in your life that you have not yet come to terms with.
7. You have a fear/distrust of happiness.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, a strong fear or distrust of happiness is as clear a red flag as any that there is still some emotional baggage in your life you need to unpack. Now, while it might sound confusing to some — why would anyone have a fear of being happy? — those of us who have been through a traumatic experience in our past and struggled with our mental health can surely relate. In fact, studies show that victims of trauma often have a hard time letting go of their past and struggle to move forward with their lives. As crazy as it may sound, these people find comfort in their pain because it’s what feels most familiar to them, and that’s why they keep coming back to it. And happiness? Genuine, lasting happiness feels scary and unfamiliar to someone who’s suffered so much for so long.
So, do you relate to any of the things we’ve mentioned here? If you are struggling with your mental health and living with unresolved trauma, please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental healthcare professional today and get help.
It may not happen as easily or as quickly as we’d like, and it will surely be a painful endeavor, but overcoming our past trauma allows us to no longer be defined by it. As Helen Keller once said, “Yes, the world is full of suffering. But it is also full of the overcoming of it.” So, what mountains will you be conquering?
- American Psychological Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed). Washington, DC; APA Publishing.
- Amstadter, A. B., & Vernon, L. L. (2008). Emotional reactions during and after trauma: A comparison of trauma types. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 16(4), 391-408.
- Cotruş, A., Stanciu, C., & Bulborea, A. A. (2012). EQ vs. IQ which is most important in the success or failure of a student?. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 46, 5211-5213.
- Hansen, D. E. (2010). Intimacy, loneliness, and social withdrawal as a result of emotional trauma. Journal of Behavioral Psychology, 19(22), 114-120.