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I am going to cut straight to the chase here: we all have trauma.
We all have inherited trauma, and we all have trauma responses that we’re conditioned to believe are part of our personalities. For me, learning about trauma and working through EMDR therapy elicited a huge identity crisis, and one that I am not finished unraveling just yet.
Ever say to yourself or to someone else that you just have this gut feeling? While there is loads of research linking gut feelings to gut health and brain function, the same can be said for gut feelings indicating a trauma response.
For context, I was raised in a divorced household. I think many of us were. Divorced parents do not necessarily contribute to trauma, though. My biological dad walked away from me to raise someone else’s daughter when I was five years old. The man I know as my dad adopted me and has been part of my life since then. I spent decades arguing with therapists that my walk-away parent had absolutely nothing to do with anything relevant in my life. It was a nonissue for me, I had a dad and no use for the one that chose to walk away. Easy-peasy.
The truth is, though, it impacted me in ways I didn’t even know about, until I lost my firstborn son to PPROM (preterm premature rupture of membranes) last July. This traumatic event was the kickoff of this season for me; it catapulted me into hours of trauma therapy and audiobooks.
While I am not placing blame here, I am saying that sometimes events that seem insignificant are truly impactful. When we are children, we have no gauge for how to regulate our emotions or how to soothe ourselves; so, our nervous systems will react to a given situation. This can be problematic when a significant event, like in my case, happens when we are still too young to fully process emotions. As we grow and develop, the pathways that formed in our brains as children happen as a direct cause of whatever reaction our nervous system had back then.
Over time, we believe that facets of our personalities are simply part of who we are, except many times, these traits are actually trauma responses in disguise.
Here are five hidden trauma responses disguised as personality traits:
Too often, we associate a fear of commitment to romantic relationships. This mistake is the reason that I didn’t believe I exhibited any of these characteristics. Fear of commitment as a trauma response can show up in many other important aspects of our lives.
Professionally, this can look like self-doubt: not believing you are worthy of a job or a promotion or not believing you can accomplish the needs of a given role. This can also show up in more subtle ways, too, like, when we do not apply for a job because we reason that we would never get hired for it anyway.
Likewise, commitment-phobia may show up in our friendships, too. For me, as a military spouse who travels around frequently, I struggle to make connections and friendships. I reason to myself at the time that it’s because we will be moving in a year or so anyway—but the root cause is my hidden fear of commitment.
Commitment-phobia is both a trauma response and a consequence of emotional abandonment. If we do not commitment, we cannot get hurt by another person’s absence.
I could take the cornerstone here for this one. After the loss of my son Eliot, I launched a hobby blog called Not A Hugger, complete with a cactus logo. I chose this name because for my entire life I have been regarded as the extra-prickly one. The grumpy friend with a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and a habit of unabashedly telling you the truth to your face. The friend with absolutely no poker face and no ability to hide it either.
What I learned in trauma therapy is that consistent irritability is a trauma response we develop to protect ourselves from abandonment or criticism. Turns out, you may not be perpetually pissed off after all. When we are perceived as constantly in a bad mood, we cannot be perceived as vulnerable.
Vivid Dreams or Nightmares
This one might sound a little dreamy, pun intended, but hear me out. Have you ever woken up with a start from a nap or in the middle of the night from a dream that seemed so real you were confused about where you were for a moment?
I vividly remember the first time this happened to me. In my dream, I was falling off a creek bank into the cold, rushing water. I woke up screaming for my mom in the next room. My poor mom was baffled, partially from being awoken in the middle of the night to my screams, but mostly, because when she found me, I was clinging onto my bed skirt for dear life, fully convinced that if I let go I would drown. This vivid dream pattern continued well into my adulthood and transitioned to PTSD-related nightmares later, dreams so real to me that I would often wake up with a racing heart and cold sweat.
If we follow Freudian logic behind dreams, we can believe that dreams reveal hidden emotions or desires. However, more research links vivid dreaming and nightmares to memory formation and problem-solving.
If we combine what we know about trauma and the brain, one can deduce that reoccurring nightmares or vivid dreams may be a way in which our nervous systems are trying to soothe or resolve an issue or event.
We know we have a huge to-do list, but we press next on that Netflix series episode anyway; only later to lament over why we didn’t force ourselves to complete our tasks sooner. Then repeat. Set the family meal clock an hour later to accommodate us, the always-late-to-the-party guest. Are you guilty? I am.
Procrastinating has made its way onto memes and internet funnies alike in recent years. The reality is that procrastinating is really avoidance, and avoidance is a telltale trauma response.
Sometimes, we find ourselves in a pattern of procrastinating, then feeling rushed and frazzled because of it. If you can relate, you are not alone. For me, the loss of Eliot increased my tendency to avoid all things baby, maternity, pregnancy, or family-related. The mere sight of formula on the shelf at the grocery store was enough to send me reeling. Part of this was PTSD, but regardless, I learned to actively avoid this at all costs.
In my earlier years, this came in the form of avoiding commitment and relationships. I am the queen of agreeing to a group outing only to cancel at the last minute. There is a joke to be made here about classic INFJ introverts who do this, but it is worth a deeper dive into why so many of us are procrastinating avoiders.
An entire book could be written on the hell that is anxiety and its link to trauma. Anxiety as a trauma response can manifest in irrational fears that the world is unsafe and/or out to get us but extends to relationships as well. Are you known as the friend who cannot sit still? The constant worrier? The stick in the mud who never tries anything new? If so, you aren’t alone.
Many of our behaviors are rooted in anxiety, and anxiety is a trauma response.
With a concept that is glazed over and made light of in our culture, social anxiety, specifically, is rooted in overreacting nervous systems that produce feelings of anxiety, and over time, can convince us that anything outside of our comfort zone is unsafe. This is a direct reflection of what our autonomic nervous systems are designed to do—protect us. The issue becomes that we don’t often know how to soothe or heal these reactions, and instead, our anxious behaviors become part of who others know us to be.
Anxiety has defined my existence; I have constantly floated between what-ifs and what-haves in every situation. I canceled plans at the last second because the thought of a new restaurant with a new crowd of people left me with me too many what-ifs and what-about scenarios to work through. Once, I mustered up the courage to attend a public event, only to lay awake at night replaying everything I said and how it was likely perceived as idiotic or embarrassing.
Another danger with social anxiety is that our society heavily pushes the use of alcohol for social hours. For those of us with a lot of trauma responses, alcohol only serves to, in essence, add gasoline to an already roaring fire.
If you can relate to any of these hidden trauma responses, they are healable with the right approach. For me, the first step was identifying these characteristics in myself.
Do you have any of these?