Hi, Psych2Go-ers! What brought you here today? Maybe you’ve seen the recent Psych2Go video on 9 Signs of Unhealed Trauma, or checked out the article on unhealed relationship trauma. Perhaps you are concerned about how current world events are going to affect us all in the long term. Maybe you or someone you know has had at least one type of trauma happen in their lives.
No matter why you started reading about trauma, it’s important to know a little more about what trauma is, the levels of trauma, some of the more common types of trauma, and how unhealed trauma can affect your life. This is the first step to you or your loved one breaking free of the mental, physical, emotional, and even financial effects of trauma.
Before we get into types of trauma and how they can affect parts of your life, please know this article might be triggering. However, the intent of this article is not to hurt, trigger, or offend anyone. This article was posted with the hopes that it might help you understand yourself and your loved ones better, help you learn more about trauma, and start to think about what you need to do to take care of yourself and your mental health.
The Basics of Trauma
Do a quick keyword search for trauma in any online social science journal. The sheer number of articles in the search will give you an idea just how massive the topic of trauma is. This article only gives a quick overview due to the triggering nature and overwhelming amount of information on how unhealed trauma affects your life. Here is a quick guide to what you need to know about trauma before we get into the unhealed stuff:
- Definition of trauma: The American Psychological Association (2020) defines trauma as your emotional response to a terrible event (APA, 2020).
- Two types of trauma response: The two main types of trauma response are long term—which includes emotional flashbacks, physical symptoms, and relationship difficulties—and short term trauma responses (APA, 2020). Short term trauma responses include shock and denial (APA, 2020).
- Two levels of unhealed traumatic events: Mental health experts categorize traumatic events by severity (Makwana, 2019). Those categories are:
- Small ‘t’ Trauma: These are the traumatic events where your physical safety is not being threatened, but you experience the signs and symptoms of trauma anyway. Don’t let their less severe nature fool you. Small ‘t’ traumas can disrupt your life, especially if several of them go unprocessed. Examples of small ‘t’ traumas include:
- Getting fired from a job.
- Continuous financial stress or poverty.
- Ongoing work stress.
- Legal battles and/or incarceration (yours or a loved one’s).
- Big ‘T’ Trauma: The big ‘T’ traumatic events are pretty much what everyone pictures when they think of trauma. These events are catastrophic and leave you feeling severely distressed, powerless, and helpless. Big ‘T’ traumas can be one-time events or ongoing. Examples of these more severe traumas include:
- Sexual assault.
- Living through acts of terrorism.
- Natural disasters.
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Being assaulted.
- Neglect or deprivation.
As you can see, the definition of trauma is super open-ended. This is because trauma is an emotional reaction. Like all emotional reactions, the trauma response is different for everyone. One person might survive a natural disaster and come out of it more organized and grateful than ever. Another person might survive the same disaster, but find they often feel numb and experience emotional flashbacks. How someone will respond to trauma depends on a few things (ACA, 2020):
- Their age when the traumatic event happened.
- Cultural values and beliefs.
- How their family relates to each other.
- Family history.
- Their mental health before the traumatic event.
- Their living environment.
- Their coping skills before the traumatic event.
- Whether or not they learn from past experiences.
- How open-minded or rigid they are.
- How impulsive they are.
What are some trauma topics that we should explore in posts and videos? Would you like to know more about the thoughts and habits that make trauma worse? Tell us in the comments below if you want a video or more articles on how people react to trauma.
Three Main Types of Trauma
Think of the three main types of trauma—acute trauma, chronic trauma, and complex trauma—as an umbrella that covers other types of trauma (Missouri Dept. of Mental Health, 2019). Without further ado, here are the three main types of trauma:
- Acute Trauma refers to trauma from a single incident, such as:
- Living through 9/11
- Being robbed at gunpoint.
- Witnessing an act of violence.
- Being assaulted.
- Community violence, such as a school shooting or riot.
- An accident, such as a house fire or car accident.
- A natural disaster, such as a hurricane or wildfires.
- Acute Trauma refers to trauma from a single incident, such as:
- Chronic Trauma covers repeated and prolonged traumatic events, such as:
- Domestic violence.
- Sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or financial abuse.
- Medical trauma due to injury, illness, or medical procedures.
- Neglect, deprivation, or poverty.
- Grief from a devastating loss.
- Constant chaos from a loved one’s mental illness or addiction.
- Complex Trauma means the survivor was exposed to multiple traumatic events in their lifetime. This can mean they grew up in a chaotic or abusive home as a child, then grew up to survive other types of trauma, usually some form of abuse.
That is a ton of information to throw at you, but you will need it for context. So what does all of this look like on the daily?
Unhealed Trauma at Work
The National Council on Behavioral Health reported 70% of people over the age of 18 in the United States have survived some type of small or big ‘t’ event in their lives (NCBH, 2019). That’s almost 223.4 million people, many of whom hold jobs. This means you have probably had a coworker or boss who was experiencing symptoms of trauma.
Although nobody should be discriminated against for any mental health symptoms they might be having, the symptoms of unhealed trauma can affect the way an employee does their job. Here are some examples of how unhealed trauma can impact job performance, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health (APACWMH, 2020):
- Negative self-talk. Do you have that coworker that’s always putting themselves down? Have you ever talked to a coworker and thought they have really low self-esteem, or that they’re being too hard on themselves?
- They don’t participate in workplace activities. Have you ever had a boss or coworker that seems completely detached from office parties? Or have you ever known that coworker who always finds a reason not to come to morale-boosting events or field trips? This might be about finding office baby showers obnoxious, or it might be about avoiding a known trigger.
- They’re always expecting the worst. A huge part of the ongoing trauma response is acting in ways that prevent being triggered in the first place. Sometimes this means preparing for a worst-case scenario, even if there’s no reason to believe it will happen.
- They get startled easily. Do you know a boss or coworker that freaks out when pranked? Do you have a particular coworker who needs things super quiet?
- They have a hard time focusing. Have you ever had a coworker who gets easily distracted and has a hard time restarting a task? How about the coworker who seems to have a hard time paying attention when you’re talking to them?
- They complain about not sleeping. If your boss always seems tired or your coworker keeps saying they did nothing but toss and turn all night, this could be a sign of unhealed trauma.
Of course not sleeping, not focusing, or anything else on the list could be due to a bunch of other reasons. Don’t overlook unhealed trauma, though. Completely ignoring trauma symptoms in the workplace can lead to:
- Decreased job satisfaction.
- Greater job turn over.
- Less productive employees.
How can you support a boss or coworker who is living with symptoms of unhealed trauma? How can you honor your own mental health at work? Here are a few suggestions:
- Encourage others to take a break when needed. Feeling overwhelmed can often make the symptoms of unhealed trauma worse.
- Encourage YOURSELF to take a break when needed. Living with trauma can make you feel helpless or weak. Many people will throw themselves into their work just to avoid these feelings, but the added stress only feeds the trauma symptoms. You’re better off getting some air, meditating in the break room, or grabbing some coffee. The work will be there after your 15 minutes is done.
- Be patient with others. It can be frustrating when you have to repeat yourself when you think the other person is checked out, but your coworker who’s living with the symptoms of trauma probably isn’t doing it on purpose.
- Be patient with yourself. There will be some days when you absolutely crush it at work, but may feel triggered on other days. Celebrate your victories, but also show yourself a little grace for your not-so-great days.
- Be flexible. It’s not always possible for someone to predict when they are going to feel triggered by something. You may have to work around this.
- Plan ahead when possible. This means being aware of your patterns, as well as your coworkers’.
- Be part of a healthy workplace culture. Ask your employer if they have an EAP or any programs in place to support workers’ mental health. Do your research and make suggestions that you think would help.
- Take care of yourself. How productive can you possibly be if your own mental health isn’t where you want it to be? Take daily action steps to make sure you stay as healthy as possible.
Would you like to know more about what unhealed trauma looks like at work or school? How about a video or post on ways to do some self-care at work or school? Do you have experience with functioning in the workplace with unhealed trauma? Let us know in the comments.
Unhealed Trauma at Home
Living with unhealed trauma can be stressful, exhausting, and downright challenging. To make things even worse, the symptoms of trauma often make relating to others super difficult (PTSD Alliance, 2020). This can make the person living with trauma feel even more isolated and anxious (PTSD Alliance, 2020).
How do you know if your loved one is suffering from the symptoms of trauma? It can be easy to misinterpret the signs, as several of the reactions may feel like they’re directed at you. Here are some signs that one of your loved ones may be dealing with unhealed trauma:
- They don’t seem interested in family stuff. It can be hurtful when someone you love doesn’t seem to care about birthday parties, holidays, or give you the attention you want. It may even feel like your fault, but this probably isn’t about you.
- They have a lot of fear or anger. Do you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them? Maybe you find yourself changing the way you speak or act so you don’t trigger them. Have you ever had to change plans or where you go out to eat to work around their triggers? It may be a little deeper than your loved one being a little high maintenance.
- They zone out a lot. Part of trauma can be emotional flashbacks, which looks like someone completely checking out of a conversation or staring at the television.
- They’re super moody. Do you ever pause before dealing with your loved one because you’re not sure which personality you’ll be talking to? Does this change the way you talk with them, or whether you invite them places?
Again, these symptoms may be due to other factors, but you should use this list to start a conversation about trauma. So how do you support someone who’s struggling with the symptoms of trauma? Here are some tips for both people living with the symptoms of unhealed trauma and those who love them:
- Encourage them to talk about their triggers openly. Feeling isolated is a major part of unhealed trauma and depression. One of the things that makes trauma survivors feel isolated is having these weird thoughts and feelings that they think nobody else would understand. Make it a point to ask them how they are feeling, then actually listen to them without trying to fix it. However, please respect your own boundaries when trying to help your loved one. If their trauma starts to trigger you, please take care of yourself. This may mean putting limits on what you are able to talk about with them or how long you are willing to talk about certain topics.
- Encourage them to get help. As much as you want to help your loved one suffering with the symptoms of unhealed trauma, some parts of this journey are better left to the experts. There are many support groups, online forums, therapists, and psychiatrists who specialize in trauma. One of the best things you can do for your loved one is support them in finding the services that will work for them. This might mean helping them research what’s available. Or this might mean leading by example and seeking out some support for yourself.
- Let them have their space. Functioning with the symptoms of unhealed trauma can make the survivor feel overwhelmed, depleted, burned out, and just plain stressed. Living like this might make anyone’s mind and emotions feel like a car driving without motor oil. Respect their need for down time.
- Give yourself some space. Your loved one isn’t the only one who may be exhausted from living with unhealed trauma. Whether you need to take five minutes to ground yourself or you need to make sure you keep up with your hobbies, make sure you get some daily down time to unwind too.
- Keep including them. It can be really frustrating to continually invite someone to hang out, only to have them keep bailing on you. This kind of rejection seems pretty rude and would get to anyone. However, them not accepting your invites probably has everything to do with the overwhelming nature of trauma. It is most likely not a reflection of how your loved one feels about you. The simple act of inviting your loved one to family events, movies, or to get some takeout might make them feel like someone cares about them.
- Recognize that their mood swings aren’t about you. When you live with someone for a while, you get used to working around their quirks. If that someone is a survivor of trauma, this may mean you walk on eggshells to avoid their anger, adjust your behavior so you don’t trigger their fears, and work around their self-isolation. It can be hard not to take their behavior personally. However, part of helping them deal with their unhealed trauma symptoms is not taking their symptoms on as your own.
- Own what IS about you. Think about what you CAN control in this relationship. For most people, the only things you can control in your relationships are: the way you react to things, how you communicate with the other person, whether you respect the other person’s boundaries, whether you stay in the relationship, and whether you respect yourself. Make a list of how you can honor these things on a daily basis. Use this list as a daily journal prompt if you need guidance. Just be aware that while you may be powerless over your or a loved one’s trauma, you still have choices in the relationship.
- Nurture your positive relationships. Completely basing your life around someone who is dealing with ongoing trauma symptoms will burn you out quickly. Dealing with unhealed trauma symptoms on a daily basis is challenging enough, but trying to connect with people who don’t understand will only make you feel more frustrated and alone. Having even a couple other positive, supportive relationships will help you feel less isolated, more hopeful, and prevent burn out.
- Find activities you can both enjoy. You love a good action movie. However, your loved one who is suffering from lingering trauma symptoms might see the violence, loud noises, and fast-paced cinematography as a giant minefield of triggers. This goes for the person suffering from trauma, too. Imagine your loved one keeps inviting you to the loudest restaurant in town. You love them, but the screaming kids, off-key staff renditions of “Happy Birthday”, and other background noises fill you with anxiety. Constantly refusing their invites makes both of you feel horrible. Why not invite them to something a little quieter? Another option might be to have a conversation about what activities you can both enjoy.
- Respect yourself and your boundaries. Yes, it takes compassion and flexibility to work around someone’s mood swings and trying to avoid triggers. And “faking it” in order to be around your loved ones who are not living with unhealed trauma can be a lot. Everyone involved will get irritable and have bad days. However, nobody involved should tolerate verbal, mental, emotional, or any other type of abuse. Likewise, one or both of you may need to set some boundaries in the relationship if you usually find yourself feeling drained, stressed, or agitated before or after seeing your loved one.
- Practice non-judgment. It can be difficult to understand how it feels to be triggered by seemingly innocent things. And people who live with the unhealed symptoms of trauma can grow impatient and irritated with others not understanding. Recognizing that you do not always know the full story will help you keep things in perspective. This also means not assuming you know why others are acting the way they do.
- Ground yourself. Living with the symptoms of unhealed trauma can be a disorienting experience. It can feel like you are in a constant battle to keep your past pain out of your present. Watching your loved one deal with the symptoms of unhealed trauma can also be stressful. Grounding is a set of therapeutic techniques that can help everyone deal with their stress. These techniques—such as deep breathing, mindful eating, or taking a short walk—help pull you away from stress, anxiety, or emotional flashbacks. Grounding reminds your mind and body of the present moment.
Are you living with the symptoms of unhealed trauma? Maybe you care about someone who is. Which of these tips have you tried? How did they work for you? What trauma videos and posts would you like? Tell us more in the comments.
Millions of people struggle with the symptoms of unhealed trauma. This touches the lives of those who love them in a myriad of ways. Whether you are the survivor of a big ‘T’ event or you know someone who lives with the symptoms, unhealed trauma affects us all. The effects can be devastating, but they do not have to completely ruin someone’s life. You are more than what has happened to you. With the proper treatment, support, and lifestyle changes, a person living with unhealed trauma can lead a fulfilling life.
Again, this article was not intended to trigger or offend you. If you recognize yourself or someone you love in this post, feel encouraged to speak with a trained professional and take care of yourself. We want you to be safe and understand your mental health matters. Please don’t be afraid to reach out to an online community, other Psych2go-ers, a friend, or a qualified professional if it becomes too much. Remember, help is out there!
Spicevicious is a mental health professional by day, tarot reader by night. You can check out her blog at https://thespiceisright.wordpress.com/tag/spicevicious/ for predictions, tarot and spell info, and off-beat observations of the human condition. As always, any information provided here is for entertainment purposes only. If you need mental health counseling or treatment, please contact your insurance company, local college’s student counseling clinic, county crisis line, or keep up with Psych2Go for more information.
- American Psychiatric Association Center for Workplace Mental Health. (2020). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Primer for Employers. Retrieved from http://workplacementalhealth.org/Mental-Health-Topics/Posttraumatic-Stress-Disorder
- American Psychological Association. (2020). Personal and Pre-disposing Factors Related to Coping with Disasters/ Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/docs/trauma-disaster/fact-sheet-8—personal-and-pre-disposing-factors.pdf?sfvrsn=3629e0b7_2National Council for Behavioral Health. (2020). How to Manage Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Trauma-infographic.pdf?daf=375ateTbd56
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