“After all, when a stone is dropped into a pond, the water continues quivering even after the stone has sunk to the bottom.” ~
This is what living with trauma feels like.
Even though the event has long passed, it leaves behind a residue that continues to flow within your mind and body all throughout—thus, defining your existence, even decades after the traumatic event has ended.
Trauma is more than just the occurrence of an event. It is about the psychological and emotional impact that an event leaves on you.
It’s those scars and wounds that you try so hard to cover up, ignore, and push away—because what else can you do?
You continue to live life gripped by existential fears of being abandoned, unloved, left alone, unworthy, and so on. Then, your entire life becomes an endless cycle of finding yourself in and out of these states.
As Ellis Grey says in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The carousel never stops turning….”
Life continues to go on in some way or the other, and we also find our own ways to adapt and survive by responding in whichever ways make sense to us in that moment. Ways that enable us to survive and stay safe.
After all, when you come from chaos and conflict, the only thing that matters is safety, just so you can survive.
At times, we don’t realise that some of our persistent behaviors and tendencies are rooted in our trauma.
The more we engage in those behaviors, the more they continue to serve as a reminder of the event that has passed.
Our nervous system gets stuck in those survival behaviors because it cannot comprehend that times have changed and maybe there isn’t any need to feel unsafe anymore.
People who have undergone trauma often find themselves being stuck in either of these two states and sometimes oscillate between the two as well:
- Hyper-arousal: i.e. being in the fight-or-flight mode, which often makes them prone to aggression, irritation, frustration, anger, anxiety, and rage.
- Hypo-arousal: i.e. being in a freeze or fawn state where they grapple with feeling low, disengaged, fearful, anxious, or avoidant. They find themselves shutting down or feeling numb quite often as they are overwhelmed with the demands of life.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”~ Lena Horne
A system that has experienced trauma, struggles really hard to cope with life and is simply operating in survival mode.
It just doesn’t know when or how to switch off from this mode and just be.
This then gives rise to some behaviors that are rooted in this need for psychological, emotional, and physical safety:
1. Responding with a sense of urgency
Sometimes trauma shows up as a sense of urgency. There is a strong desire to finish off tasks or solve problems the minute they show up. Whether it’s an email or a text that needs to be answered or something big, it has to be done now! That’s because the nervous system gets stuck in fight mode and finds it really difficult to slow down and take time. At times, traumatic events require us to act quickly to avoid any damage or destruction. Similarly, even when the event has ended, the mind continues to operate in this “I need to take quick action” mode so that it can prevent something drastic from happening. This, of course, becomes exhausting after a point in time and makes you more hyper-vigilant and anxious over time.
2. Being constantly funny
Humor works as a great defense mechanism in trying and testing times. If you can turn a serious situation into a joke and laugh about it, it makes it less threatening for you mind. However, being constantly funny and trying to turn everything into a joke can be a trauma response that stems from a high degree of defense. It makes it impossible for you to pay heed to your emotions, which at times need that attention and awareness. It increases your disconnection and disengagement with self and others.
3. Being defensive
Trauma turns on your survival mode and now! Such experiences don’t let you lower your guard, for vulnerability becomes a scary experience.
Explaining yourself over and over again or justifying your thoughts and actions also stems from this need to keep yourself safe. It is a defense mechanism that tells you that if you are able to put your point across as properly as you can, then may be you can avoid an adverse consequence. When you come from a space of not being heard, explaining yourself feels like the obvious thing to do. However, too much explaining and seeking approval of your thoughts, emotions, and actions stems from a deep sense of powerlessness, which also keeps the system stuck in this state.
5. Always considering the other person’s perspective
To avoid chaos and conflict, it’s easier to keep everyone happy and be in their good books, isn’t it? Hence, you don’t voice your thoughts and always consider the other person’s perspective. But at what cost?
6. Constantly trying to help other people
When you’ve gone through something difficult, at times it makes you want to be there for people, just like you would have wanted someone to be there for you. It activates your own savior complex along with using helping people as a means to keep you safe.
7. Being controlling
Trauma makes the world uncertain, unpredictable, and unsafe. Thus, it keeps you alert and anxious all the time. It programs you for control so that you can be well-prepared for anything that can go wrong. It doesn’t let you rest because if you do and something goes wrong, then what?
Trauma creates change in you that you don’t choose.
You just do what needs to be done during that time to survive and carry on, and as much as you try, you can’t just get out of it and move on like nothing ever happened.
The only way to move past it is by acknowledging that something happened and it left an indelible impression on you.
Then, it’s not about making it go away but allowing it to sit next to you with the understanding that it’s a part of you that is calling out for help.
“There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn’t a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed. Be patient. Take up space. Let your journey be the balm.” ~ Dawn Serra
At times, just acknowledging its presence is enough.
At times, that’s all we can do.
“Healing is like an onion. As you process through one layer of trauma to release the pain and heal, a new layer will surface. One layer after another layer will bring up new issues to focus on. Pace yourself. Only focus on one layer at a time.” ~ Dana Arcuri