When we experience trauma, it can leave a lasting imprint that affects the way we perceive and respond to things around us, even long after the initial traumatic experience. We may develop behaviors that served us well at the time but now hinder our ability to form healthy relationships or cope with stressors in a more adaptive way. Perhaps we become hypervigilant, pushing people away before they have a chance to hurt us again, or we may engage in reckless behaviors that put ourselves in danger because we feel numb and disconnected from ourselves. These new, learned behaviors can be considered trauma responses.
By definition, trauma responses are the emotional and behavioral reactions that can occur after experiencing a stressful or traumatic event. These reactions are often seen as adaptive coping mechanisms that develop as a means to help people manage overwhelming feelings and memories related to the trauma they experienced. Sometimes we may not even recognize that our behaviors are born from traumatic experiences earlier in life. When you’re so used to something, it’s easy to think of it as “normal,” even if it’s causing disruption in your life or interfering with your wellness.
It’s important to think about our behaviors and thinking patterns that bother us or that don’t seem to serve us well. Often, we can connect these patterns to times when we have felt hurt in the past. This helps to deepen our self-understanding, reclaim control, and move toward healing.
Let’s talk about examples that you may not realize are actually trauma responses.
Hyper Independence. People who are hyper independent may have learned early in life that they could not trust or rely on others for care or comfort. Sometimes feeling emotionally neglected leads to the feeling of “having to do everything myself,” which can come with loneliness and resentment. Healing from this trauma might include building safe relationships and finding ways to feel secure with people again.
Extreme Passiveness. People who rarely have an opinion about anything and who struggle to even know their preferences may have experienced trauma in which they were berated for speaking up in the past. Attempts to please others can really diminish their own individuality. Healing from this kind of trauma might include practicing self-expression and self-validation, along with social support.
Defensiveness. Sometimes being very quick to defend yourself could be an indication of past trauma. People who have been regularly criticized or attacked in the past may experience the trauma response of defensiveness. This occurs when people always seem to be on high alert and hypervigilant of their surroundings or when people seem to react very quickly in a defensive way to everyday conversation that may not have been intended to attack them. If this feels familiar, remember that your trauma is valid and it is understandable that you might feel this way. Healing for this kind of trauma might include practicing mindfulness and interpersonal skills to help you feel safe and relieved from the burden of having to defend yourself.
Over-Analyzing. Sometimes when we over-analyze, it comes from our past experiences of a sudden disruption in our life. People might over-analyze because they are trying to prepare for every possible outcome today so they are not caught off guard like they were in the past. Healing from this kind of trauma might include practicing radical acceptance and letting go of control, which is certainly not easy, but it may help you feel less anxious.
Low Distress Tolerance. When people experience trauma, their central nervous system is hurt, and sometimes it can make people feel less capable of managing other distressing experiences, even those to a lesser degree. For example, if someone feels defeated by past trauma, they may also feel defeated in other parts of their life, even when faced with minor inconveniences or smaller problems that they would otherwise have felt capable of facing if it were not for the trauma. Healing from this kind of trauma might include practicing distress-tolerance skills such as those associated with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and also rebuilding self-confidence and belief in your capabilities again.
Difficulty Showing Emotions. Some people have difficulty showing emotions due to past trauma experiences or past experiences feeling emotionally neglected. In these cases, there probably wasn’t much room in their life to safely express themselves. Maybe people in their life didn’t model self-expression to them, or maybe their trauma experiences made them feel as though showing vulnerable emotions was not acceptable. Sadly, some people are under the impression that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. Quite the opposite – being able to express a whole range of emotions (both positive and negative) is an incredibly strong skill. Healing from trauma that has diminished your ability to express emotions might include practicing emotional expression in safe environments, such as in therapy, to then later transfer those skills to other environments over time.
Constant Apologizing. We all know people who feel compelled to apologize more often they needed. It’s a very common personality trait that unfortunately is probably stemming from experiences in which people felt as though they were a burden to others. This kind of trauma is just as valid as any other form of trauma. When we feel like a burden to others, it’s impossible to truly live our most empowered lives. To heal from this kind of trauma, it might be helpful to work on self-worth and manifesting the belief that you are deserving of taking up space in the world. It’s the truth. You are a human deserving of love, respect, acceptance, validation, and having your needs met – and you don’t need to apologize for that.
Detachment. Sometimes people detach themselves from experiences as a protective measure. They refrain from opening up to others or getting close to people out of fear that they may lose those people someday. They may also refrain from celebrations or embracing experiences due to the fears they hold. This is often resulting from trauma, especially the kind of trauma in which they felt abandoned or neglected in the past, or if they felt as though they missed out on experiences that they deserved. This type of trauma can be particularly painful. Healing might include deepening their understanding of what happened in the past and how that relates to current behaviors, and assessing whether the current behaviors today are truly allowing you to live a life aligned with your values. For example, how is refraining from opening up to others holding you back from the intimacy and connection that you might crave? Exploring these questions safely with a therapist who can help you process understand these ideas can be significantly healing.
No matter your trauma responses, you are valid. Your pain is real. You did not deserve what happened to you in the past. It can be painful to look back and realize how trauma has impacted your current behaviors, but we want you to know that healing is possible. It’s possible to recover from trauma and make small changes in your life now that will bring you to a much happier, healthier state. If you’re ready to begin this process and explore how your trauma may have impacted you, please reach out to us at River Oaks Psychology. We would be honored to work with you.
Written by Lauren Presutti