Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 3

Often people do not even know they have been traumatized. Learn to recognize the symptoms, coping mechanisms and triggers.
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Mary and Peter both became ill at the same time. Mary felt achy, had a headache, was feverish and just wanted to sleep. Peter had a sore throat, a cough and was running a very high fever. He couldn’t get any sleep. Turns out they both had the flu, but were suffering slightly different symptoms. Trauma, like the flu, has different symptoms for different people. Not everyone gets the same symptoms.

There are fairly common trauma symptoms: nightmares, flashbacks, getting triggered, constant fear, hyper-vigilance and not sleeping. There are subtler symptoms like a change in personality, isolating, and thinking, “It only happened to me.” There are rarer reactions such as disassociation and amnesia. Trauma victims, without knowing why, also can develop confusing, strong feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, rage, terror, and/or sadness. Some of these feelings can result in becoming homicidal or suicidal.

Then there are the actions people take to reduce trauma symptoms and minimize what happened called coping mechanisms; addictions, keeping it a secret or developing mental health diagnoses like anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, and/or depression. This is not an exhaustive list, but hits the most prevalent ones.

Do You Have Trauma?

Overall trauma can fit into two categories: chronic and acute. It is important to be aware that these two types of trauma exist; otherwise, you may go through life having traumatic symptoms and not understanding why. Both categories carry the symptoms of trauma.

Chronic Trauma. Chronic traumas are events that are ongoing in one’s life, like growing up with an ill parent, an alcoholic parent or being physically, emotionally, of sexually abused on a regular basis. Neglect, criticism, bullying and shaming would also be examples. Many people do not see this continuous traumatizing behavior as trauma at all because it becomes normalized in their lives. If you ask a fish what its water is like, it may reply, “What water?” These chronic traumas are the “water” people swim in. They are so used to it they don’t realize how much it is affecting them.

Acute Trauma. Acute trauma is more of a one-time traumatic event that completely overwhelms the person. A tornado that destroys your house or being in a terrorist attack would be examples of an acute trauma. It is easier to recognize as acute trauma. The change is quick and can be correlated to the event. Symptoms tend to appear right away. Nightmares and trouble sleeping are common. People are easily triggered and the event floods back in the form of flashbacks. Sever personality changes are a signal of a reaction to trauma. A child who was sunny and happy becomes belligerent and fearful because the world has suddenly become a bleak and scary place. If one has a history of trauma already, they are more apt to see the acute event as more traumatic than if they had a relatively trauma-free background.

Most Common Symptoms Of Trauma

DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES. Dreams are your normal way of processing what happens to you during your day. Once those happenings are processed by your dreams, that information is sent to your file cabinet of memories in your frontal cortex. When trauma happens, it is more difficult to process, and it ends up being put in the back of your head, or the back burner, to be processed at a later date. Bad dreams and nightmares are your means to process what has been stored on your back burner, and try to make a pathway to your file cabinet in the front of your brain (frontal cortex).

A bad dream tends to repeat the same theme over and over. Even if you wake up from a bad dream, you might go back to the same dreamscape when you fall back to sleep. A nightmare will wake the dreamer up in terror, sometimes not knowing exactly what was dreamt, but leaving the dreamer in a pool of sweat and fear. Many times, it takes a while to really wake up from the nightmare, and even though you are awake in the present moment and safe, you think you are still in the nightmare of the past.

Jill had been left with her aunt occasionally as a little girl. Her aunt was not used to children and would lock Jill in a closet for a good portion of her visit. It was dark and cramped in the closet. Since it was in the south and there was no air conditioning, it was also hot and muggy in the closet. Jill felt like she could not breathe, and was afraid she would die there, and no one would find her. Fortunately for Jill, her family moved away from her aunt before she had to endure the closet many times. But for a while after Jill moved, whenever the weather was hot and muggy (a trigger), Jill would wake up screaming from a nightmare she could not remember. She was too young to tell her parents what the dream was about, but later in her life she started having the nightmares again and this time recalled the dark closet. In little Jill’s case, the trauma of being locked in the closet was terrifying, and the nightmare only got her halfway through the processing. The next night the brain may try again to process the trauma, starting over from the beginning. No wonder people with trauma have trouble sleeping.

TRIGGERS AND FLASHBACKS. When you are triggered by something, it reminds you of the negative trauma that happened to you in the past. The trigger can be visual, auditory, in the form of thoughts or behaviors, body sensations, smells, tastes and/or touch. For instance, someone who was sexually abused as a child might be triggered by his or her partner touching them in the same way the abuser did. Sometimes the trigger only reminds you of a trauma, but sometimes the reaction is much stronger. Being triggered can make you feel like you are back in the past trauma. You may remember every detail of the event, the behaviors and intentions of those around you, and all the emotions that came up for you. You may remember the smells and tastes of that day. Your body may feel like it felt that day. You may even feel like you left the present moment and re-entered the time when the trauma first occurred. This called a flashback.

HYPER-VIGILANCE. Hyper-vigilance is also a result of trauma. After a trauma the world becomes a scary place. The only way a person feels safe is to be on constant alert. The boy whose father beats him is always on alert for that slap or hit, and carefully watches his father’s every move to see if he gets good Dad or bad Dad. If bad Dad comes home from work, the boy tries to make himself scarce and becomes invisible to protect himself from the blows. The sickly child may turn into a hypochondriac, aware of every ache or pain, and certain she is going to die at any minute of something terrible. Her world is never a safe place as an adult because it had become so unsafe as a child. The woman who was in a life threatening car accident now drives so cautiously she actually causes car accidents in her quest to be safe. Because of trauma, the world is a frightening place for all these people, where they are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and trying to be able to react quickly to it.

YOU DON’T SEEM YOURSELF. Change of personality, especially with children, is another sign that someone has been traumatized. A sweet child that is abused by a neighbor may start acting out by hitting other children and adults. He is angry all the time. He may start using bad language. “No” becomes his favorite word. He may cry easily. There may be talk of him being expelled from school. He may refuse to go to bed and is suddenly afraid of the dark. With a sudden change of personality, chances are this child has been traumatized in some way. This is true of adults as well.

SUICIDAL OR HOMICIDAL. Along with changes in personality, a person may become suicidal or homicidal. The trauma victim may feel like he can no longer deal with all the feelings that flood him when he has to face his trauma (flashbacks, nightmares, triggers), so he decides that ending his life is the only way to be rid of those emotions. Unfortunately, this is the choice of many veterans coming home from the service.

Another common reaction is to be so full of rage after a trauma that a person wants to bring other people into his misery. It was not uncommon in the 80’s and 90’s for someone finding out they had AIDS to have unprotected sex with other people and not tell them about the diagnosis. Then those people would have sex with others not even knowing they were spreading a once lethal disease. Or the teenager who is bullied at school and decides he can’t take it anymore and shows up with a gun one day and kills the students he felt bullied by. Trauma can lead to rage. Rage can lead to homicide.

SECRECY. Unfortunately, many people who have been traumatized keep that trauma a secret. A young girl who is molested might feel like she is the only one this has happened to. She might feel ashamed, embarrassed, angry, or like it must have been her fault somehow. She might be afraid no one would believe her because the perpetrator was someone well known in the community. He would call her a liar and muddy her name. The perpetrator may have threatened to hurt her or her family if she told anyone. The girl might also be afraid of other people’s opinions of her, seeing her as a “slut” and asking for it.

Or maybe they would blame her the way she is blaming herself. She might feel like she was protecting someone by keeping quiet. She might feel guilty, thinking she could have prevented it, even if she couldn’t. She might have buried the secret so deep she only feels numb when she thinks about it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still hiding just below the surface like an infection, poisoning her life. Or just the thought of talking about it may be too painful to face. She might become overwhelmed by strong feelings like rage, shame, self-blame, and sadness, which she would try to bury with coping mechanisms.

There are many reasons people keep a trauma a secret. In the short run, the secret protects people from facing their trauma, but the longer the secret is kept, the more damage is done to the victim. Once the secret is out and someone believes the victim, the victim can start to heal.

Coping Mechanisms For Trauma

These are some of the actions someone takes to cope with being traumatized, so he or she can hide from trauma and get on with daily life.

It wasn’t that bad. Joan was raped by someone she considered a friend. Her way of dealing with, not just the rape, but with the betrayal of a friend hurting her, was to minimize the rape. “He didn’t mean it that way. It wasn’t so bad. It didn’t last long. He said he would never do it again. He said I must have enjoyed it because my body reacted to the sexual overture. I should just move on and not think about it anymore.” She thought she had put it behind her, but deep down it was festering. Then years later, when she was having her first child, all the feelings she had really had about this trauma, came tumbling out. She didn’t even realize what was upsetting her so much. She did not equate her present upset with the rape that had happened so many years before. Joan had minimized the trauma by pretending it was not a big deal.

Addictions. Another way of hiding from one’s trauma is through addictions. Overworking, drugs, overeating, alcohol, gambling, sex, over shopping, porn, caffeine and cigarettes, just to mention the most popular. Trauma isn’t always the reason for an addiction, but clearing the trauma makes it easier to reduce it. Alcoholism and being a workaholic are specific forms of addiction, noted below.

Alcoholism. Becky was in her sixties and came in with a history of alcohol abuse. When taking her history, she was asked if she had ever been sexually abused. She started to cry, and through her tears talked about how she had been raped at 16. Even though Becky had been going to therapy most of her life, she said no one had ever asked her that. She felt ashamed and that it must have been her fault. Then she was asked when she had started drinking. She confessed it was shortly after the rape. She said alcohol helped her forget it had happened.

Workaholic. Bob had been in the Korea War. He was told when he was getting out that if he ever told anyone about some of the things he was ordered to do, he would be court marshaled and hung. He knew some of the things he was told to do were illegal. He also held a lot of guilt around them. So, he didn’t tell anyone (holding secrets). But he could not sleep because he had terrible nightmares and he suffered from headaches. Bob became a workaholic to keep his memories at bay. He also barely spoke to his wife and kids. He was afraid he might tell them about the war, and ‘they’ would come after him.

Dissociation. If the trauma had been particularly brutal and ongoing, some people go beyond just trying to pretend it didn’t happen, and actually do not remember it happening. This is a simplistic definition of dissociation. This is more prevalent when the trauma happened to someone as a young child. Children do not have many coping mechanisms available to them, so forgetting something terrible ever happened is their best way of going on with their lives between attacks. Children pretend they are somewhere else when the trauma takes place, and when it is over, they return to their bodies. The next day they may not remember what cruel thing took place and they can go about their day.

Of course, even though they may not remember the trauma, their behavior tells the story of their abuse. As was mentioned earlier in this article, there may be a change of personality. Trauma can work in the shadows, unseen, to steer an individual’s life in a challenging direction.

Mental Health Diagnoses. Panic attacks, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and many other mental health diagnoses become forms of coping mechanisms for people with trauma. I say this because I have noticed the symptoms of these diagnoses diminish or disappear once I treat the trauma. People use these symptoms to keep their trauma at bay. In other words, if they are busy dealing with the issues with their mental health diagnoses, they are not paying so much attention to the trauma symptoms. To be fair, many people do not even know they have trauma.

Possible Traumatic Events

Trauma comes in many flavors and effects different people differently. Losing a child to leukemia can cause one parent to start a blood bank for bone marrow transplants and another to fall into despair. Often people do not even know they have been traumatized. They only know something bad happened and they are unhappy and feel hopeless.

The following examples of possible traumatic events appear in list form intentionally, without description, so as not to trigger people. When people are aware of the different types of trauma, it may help them realize that one or more of these traumas may be why they can’t get out of their own way.

Loss: Deaths of parents, grandparents, siblings, other relatives, friends, pets. Home loss, job loss. Loss of physical function. Expelled from a group of friends or family. Birth of a sibling. Betrayal. Suicide. Abortion. Miscarriage. Infidelity. Abandonment.

Natural Disaster: Tornado. Ice storm. Blizzard. Hurricane. Flood. Earthquake. Tsunami. Drought. Fires. Volcanic eruption.

Physical: Chronic pain. Surgery. Terminal illness. Bee sting. Neglect. Allergies. Incompetence in health care. Cannot breathe. Near drowning. Near death. Pregnancy. Childbirth. Infertility. Military service. Car accident. Domestic violence. Home invasion. Pain. Burns. Hospitalization.

Media: TV. Video games. News. Bullied on social media. De-platformed. R-rated movies. Misinformation and confusion in the media.

Societal: Gun violence. Unsafe neighborhoods. Terrorism. Violence. War. Church. Poverty. Inflation. Hunger. Homelessness. Murder. Genocide. Prison. Institutionalization. Neglect. Addiction. Bullying. Lawsuits. Isolation. Scapegoating. Gaslighting. Racism. Nursing homes. Discrimination. Sexism. Homophobia. Xenophobia. Pandemic.

Domestic Abuse: Physical, emotional, sexual abuse. Molestation. Rape. Ritual abuse. Humiliation. Shaming. Bullying. General violence.

Personal:  Accident. Living with an untreated trauma victim. Bad experience with a professional (doctor, therapist, teacher, lawyer etc.) Not picked up at school. Left at a gas station by a parent when using the restroom. Growing up different from others in your community. Competition. Caregiving. Receiving caregiving. Bankruptcy. Phobias. Losing license. Identity theft. Relationship issues.

Children: Giving a child up for adoption. Being given up for adoption. Having famous parents. Chronically ill child. Neglected. Super sensitive. Having helicopter parents. Kidnapped. Hospitalization. Cruelty. In utero trauma. Birth trauma.

Parents: Chronically ill. Addicts. Physically, emotionally and/or sexually abusive. Mentally ill. Yelling. Verbal abuse. Emotionally absent parent. Unsupportive/critical.

Secondary Trauma (Witnessing Trauma): Clinicians working with trauma. Watching siblings or others abused. TV (911 towers coming down). Survival guilt (shootings, war, crime).

Possible Advantages Of Trauma

This is not to make light of individual traumas. Trauma results in much pain and suffering. It also can take a toll on your life consciously and unconsciously. Past traumas can ruin your relationships with both yourself and others. They can keep you from going after your dreams and fulfilling them. Trauma can keep you from securing and doing well in a job. Overall, traumas can keep you from being your best self, blossoming and happy.

On the upside, trauma helps bring out strengths you would never know you had without going through the trauma. It pushes you to come up with coping mechanisms that allow you to keep going. Trauma builds resiliency through necessity. In dealing with trauma, you become creative and may find your purpose in life. The drug addict becomes the drug counselor. That is how AA was formed. A sexually abused woman starts the “Me Too” movement. The child who has been beaten vows not to beat his or her child, and laws get passed to protect children. The person who loses a loved one to a disease becomes a researcher so others can live longer. The species can evolve when people come up against trauma.

While in a concentration camp during WWII, Dr. Victor Frankel, author of A Man’s Search for Meaning, tried to understand how people could be so horrible to each other. His search both helped him get through the most horrendous experience of his life, and helped him understand the meaning of life after he was released. When I think I am having a particularly hard time in my life, I think of Dr. Frankel’s story, and it helps put things in perspective.

There are severe traumas that people suffer, but finding the silver lining and any positive lesson amidst the trauma is a helpful start to healing. Ask yourself, “How has this trauma helped to guide my life or made it richer?” You might be surprised by your answer. This can be the start of a new, freer life.

Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 1

Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 2

Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 3

Diane Spindler, LMHC, LMFT, is the author of Goodbye Trauma — Gentle Reprocessing: A Technique to Relieve Trauma, newly released in March 2023. Over her 30 years of private psychotherapy practice in Central Massachusetts, Diane has developed and trained other clinicians how to use Gentle Reprocessing to help their trauma clients. She has presented her work in the United States, Canada, and France, and has also has taught regularly at Boston University, in private workshops, and in clinics. Visit

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