What Does Trauma Look Like?

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: pexels.com

If I tell people I believe everyone is traumatized in some way, they often respond with a version of ‘oh sure, but not me. I had a perfect childhood’. We think we can recognize trauma in others very easily, that it looks a certain way, and this image doesn’t match how we see ourselves. But perhaps our idea of what trauma looks like isn’t that accurate.

What stereotypical image do we have of trauma? Is it an image of someone screaming out in agony or fear? Or do you see someone frozen in shock? Both of those can be responses to trauma being triggered, but some of the responses are far less obvious.

One of the ways you can recognize trauma, is through a reaction that seems out of proportion to the situation. Perhaps your colleague reacts extremely emotional when you give them feedback. Or maybe your partner becomes fearful of touch when they are very stressed. Someone else might feel extremely frightened when hearing a dog bark, even if it’s only on television. Some of these responses are obvious, others not so much. When I first realized that my response to ‘being ridiculed’ was perhaps not so much situational as character-based, I found it hard to believe. Surely people were making fun of me and it was only normal that I felt extremely hurt by it, right? It took time and emotional processing to see the situations in which I might have felt ridiculed even though no one made fun of me, and to recognize my own part in the meaning I gave them.

Another typical response to trauma being triggered is the freeze reaction. It’s not so much an over-reaction to a certain event, as a total lack of reaction. The freeze reaction is a response that can also cause a traumatic event to turn into emotional trauma. When we feel like there’s no safe appropriate response (such as flight or fight), we freeze and often dissociate from our bodies and experiences. The same can happen when trauma is triggered again and we haven’t yet learned to complete the cycle of event and fitting response.

The least obvious response to trauma being triggered is no response at all, at least not visibly. My childhood abandonment issues might be triggered but instead of showing my fear and insecurity, which I believe to be weak and pathetic, I’ll hide them from whomever I talk to. Ideally, I’ll hide them from myself as well, so I don’t have to deal with the situation at all and can just pretend it doesn’t exist. Obviously, the trauma won’t disappear, but we can just keep ignoring it for years.

These are three ways in which we can notice ourselves or someone else responding when trauma is being triggered. They look very different, and are hard to tell apart from other common causes such as stress, fatigue or depression. One of the ways you can tell them apart is by noticing the pattern that’s behind these reactions: An unresolved trauma is bound to visit you over and over and over again, until you decide to deal with it.

So what does trauma look like when you deal with it? I’ve written previously on using EMDR for emotional work here and on releasing trauma through TRE here, though not extensively.
Both are powerful ways to deal with trauma that’s been locked insight of your body.

During the weekend, I had set aside time to deal with one of my major trauma’s which deals with sexuality, loss of innocence and feelings of unsafety around men. I went into a meditative state and allowed my body to take over. It didn’t take long for the tremors to start. My legs, torso and arms were shaking alternately in uncontrollable movements. Most of these trauma releasing moments, which often arise spontaneously during meditation or after exercise, last for up to about 10 to 15 minutes tops. This time, however, it lasted for over two hours.

As I lay there shaking, I kept thinking to myself: ‘This is what trauma looks like.” With the shakes, I noticed emotions rise up, and memories I thought I had forgotten. I felt intense, hot anger, grief and fear at the same time. I screamed “go away” and kicked my feet at an imaginary man’s face.
Afterwards, I felt exhausted and worn out, but also lighter than I had done before. I knew I had processed some deeper part of a trauma that still manages to interfere with how I want to live my life. I had taken another small step towards freedom.

As you can see, there are many ways in which we may recognize trauma within ourselves and others, and there are ways in which we can process it to make room for more freedom in our lives. Whether someone chooses to do that, however, is up to them. Not everyone is ready to deal with their trauma’s. It takes time, courage and being tired of suffering to take those first steps to healing them. When you do, however, you notice that the road ahead becomes every wider and smoother, even if you do still meet the occasional pothole.

My understanding of trauma is still limited to my own experiences, those of the people I know and what I’ve read/watched (talks by dr. Gabor Maté, for example). I’m not an expert on the subject at all and am grateful for anything else you would like to add to the topic. Feel free to do so in the comments!

In closing, I’d like to add that I hope you’ve come to look at trauma in a different light, if you didn’t already. Perhpaps you might even keep someone’s possible traumatic experiences in mind when you notice they are ‘overreacting’ or ‘shutting down’ in a difficult situation.
In any case, giving someone the benefit of the doubt has more often turned out to be blessing, than a curse. And the more blessings, the better.

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