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5 Impacts of Trauma on Everyday Life

Thanks to increased awareness of mental health issues, most people can recognize the glaring signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): frequent nightmares, flashbacks, and intense emotional reactions to reminders of the traumatic event. However, trauma isn’t always rooted in a single major incident; it can also stem from years of living in a highly stressful environment or from problematic primary relationships in early childhood, a situation often referred to as complex trauma. Keep reading to learn 6 impacts of trauma on everyday life.

Trauma leaves a lasting imprint on the body and mind, often reflected in the physiological responses of individuals. The nervous system, having been jarred by traumatic experiences, may remain in a state of heightened alert. This leads to an array of psychosomatic symptoms such as an increase in heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and heightened cortisol levels. All of which are indicative of the body’s stress response. Additionally, trauma can disrupt the endocrine system, leading to hormonal imbalances that exacerbate physical and emotional symptoms.

Regardless of its origin, the impacts of trauma can sometimes be less obvious, quieter, and more subtle, bringing to mind the saying, ‘Still waters run deep.’ Here are some common ways in which trauma can quietly manifest itself beneath the surface of everyday life, becoming part of the landscape of one’s existence in ways that may not seem immediately tied to a traumatic history.

1. Always Being on Edge

When you have experienced trauma – whether it was one terrifying life-threatening experience or years of prolonged emotional turmoil – you are often left with an innate sense of needing to look out for danger around every corner. This may not be a conscious awareness; as trauma is stored in the body. This state of high alert, or hypervigilance, is the body’s way of trying to ensure future safety. The body internalizes the message that the world is a dangerous place. Sometimes this may manifest as a strong startle reflex, or being “jumpy”; it can also just be a general state of always expecting something to go wrong, or being suspicious of people’s actions or motives.

This heightened state of alert can significantly impact one’s daily life. The world can seem fraught with potential dangers, turning ordinary situations into sources of anxiety and stress. Social interactions might become challenging, as individuals may misinterpret benign intentions as threatening, or find it difficult to trust others. It can also manifest in the form of overreacting to minor incidents or having a pronounced startle response to unexpected noises or movements. These reactions are not conscious choices but are rather automatic responses from a body conditioned to anticipate danger at every turn. Addressing this state of hypervigilance is an important part of healing from trauma. It involves retraining the body and mind to understand that the immediate environment is no longer threatening.

2. Physical Pain

Researchers have found a link between trauma and chronic physical pain; in fact, between 15% and 35% of patients with chronic pain also have PTSD, compared to 2% of people without chronic pain. There are several possible mechanisms for this. Cellular and immunological changes can take place as a result of a flooding of stress hormones, contributing to the development of various illnesses sometimes years after the trauma.

A hyperarousal of the nervous system can cause physical sensitization to pain, and hypervigilance makes people more alert to their pain, which in turn reinforces the nervous system to produce more pain signals, creating a vicious cycle. Trauma survivors also often unconsciously tense their muscles, the way the body does in preparation for an attack – sometimes referred to as armoring – causing inflammation and pain.

3. Exhaustion

Being in a constant state of hyperarousal takes a toll on the body, sometimes leading to extreme fatigue. Sleep disturbances, which are very common after experiencing trauma and can include difficulty falling or staying asleep or disruptions through nightmares, also lead to daytime exhaustion.

Exhaustion, in the context of trauma, is not merely a feeling of tiredness but a profound physical and mental state that can significantly impair an individual’s daily functioning. This exhaustion stems from the body’s prolonged state of hyperarousal, a common response to trauma. Hyperarousal is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response; it’s a state of heightened sensory sensitivity and acute stress reaction meant to help an individual respond to perceived threats. However, when this state is prolonged, as often happens after trauma, it can have debilitating effects.

The body, in a constant state of alertness, consumes a considerable amount of energy. This persistent state of hyperarousal can lead to adrenal fatigue, where the adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones, become overtaxed. This can result in a significant drop in energy levels, making even routine tasks seem overwhelming. Addressing this exhaustion often requires an extensive approach, including medical intervention, psychological support, and strategies for improving sleep hygiene and stress management.

4. Dissociation

When an experience overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope, one way the mind attempts to offer protection is through dissociation, or disconnecting the mind from the body. Media portrayals of dissociation conjure the image of extreme personality shifts or completely blanking out, but in reality, it can be much more subtle, including frequent daydreaming, zoning out, a feeling of being separate from yourself and your emotions, a sense of things being “unreal”, a distorted sense of time, and memory lapses. Such symptoms may not always be readily identifiable as dissociation, making it a subtle but pervasive effect of trauma.

The impact of dissociation on an individual’s life can be profound and far-reaching. For instance, the distorted sense of time and memory lapses associated with dissociation can affect personal relationships and job performance. A person might find it challenging to recall important dates or commitments or may lose track of time. At times, this can be mistaken for carelessness or lack of interest. In more severe cases, dissociation can lead to disruptions in identity and self-perception, contributing to a fragmented sense of self. This fragmentation can hinder the development of a coherent narrative about one’s life and experiences, which is essential for identity formation and psychological well-being.

5. Lack of Self-Confidence, Chronic Guilt, and Shame

These are perhaps the most insidious of the “quiet” impacts of trauma. They become such an integral part of our daily functioning and worldview that we don’t see the connection to the trauma. Trauma survivors, especially those who have dealt with childhood abuse, often suffer from a profound sense of self-blame, feelings of being unworthy or not good enough. The belief that they are somehow damaged or defective lingers. These feelings can lead to problems in professional or academic achievement and personal relationships and can make it difficult to simply exist in one’s own skin every day.

For those who have endured traumatic experiences, especially in formative years such as during childhood, these feelings can be particularly overwhelming. This is because such experiences can fundamentally alter the way one views themselves and their place in the world. A common repercussion is a pervasive sense of self-doubt and a belief in one’s inherent unworthiness or inadequacy. These feelings are not just fleeting moments of insecurity; they are profound, constant undercurrents that color every aspect of a person’s life. This may affect decision-making, relationships, and the ability to pursue goals and dreams. It’s a burden of chronic guilt and shame that can lead to a cycle of self-sabotage and withdrawal from meaningful activities and relationships.

Trauma and Therapy: Protective Mechanisms to Healing

These everyday experiences may seem more subtle than some of the other symptoms commonly associated with PTSD, but together they can take a heavy toll on every aspect of one’s life. It’s important to understand that these struggles are a result of your body’s natural response to traumatic experiences; your mind and body put mechanisms in place at the time to protect you. However, now that the danger is in the past, those survival mechanisms are no longer serving you and have become damaging.

Mental health treatment for trauma can involve identifying what those protective mechanisms were created for. Treatments are developed to help the mind and body learn that they are no longer needed. Over time, they can help to uncover and reframe the maladaptive thoughts and beliefs about the self and the world that resulted from the traumatic experience. Therapy may also involve somatic techniques to help you feel safe in your body and the present moment and tone down the nervous system’s state of hyperarousal.

Common modalities specifically designed for trauma treatment include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Internal Family Systems (IFS), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and are commonly used in conjunction with traditional and broad-based treatments. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), family systems approach, and mindfulness and relaxation skills.

Effective trauma treatment is collaborative and personalized, taking into account the individual’s unique experiences, strengths, and needs. Understanding the multifaceted impacts of trauma is crucial in recognizing its pervasive role in an individual’s life. With a nuanced approach to therapy, acknowledging the complex interplay of physical, cognitive, emotional, and relational factors, individuals can embark on a journey towards healing and reclaiming their lives from the shadows of their traumatic experiences.

Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio, MA, Ed.S., MTF, LPC
Author: Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio, MA, Ed.S., MTF, LPC

Maria Sikoutris Di Iorio, MA, Ed.S., MTF, LPC is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, graduate of Seton Hall University with a Post Master's as an Educational Specialist and Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy.

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