In the first blog, we discussed some differences between classic anxiety and a trauma reaction. We also touched on some of the changes you might experience after enduring a painful event. Next, we’ll be diving deeper into the types of difficulties that you may notice after a stressful incident occurs. The phrase “time heals all wounds” may be helpful for some, but in the aftermath of a trauma, it’s not always the antidote. Indeed, it can feel like you’re stuck in an alternate reality well after the traumatic episode has occurred.
I like to use the metaphor of a car: The pain may be a constant passenger, sometimes shifting seats. When sitting in the front, it holds the map while you navigate the road. Other times, it may move to the back seat and call out directions from time to time. Regardless of the positioning, there tends to be similar patterns in the specific ways painful experiences can affect your life. Here are 4 general categories of change that can help you identify a traumatic reaction.
Re-living the trauma
The painful event makes a reappearing role in your mind without warning. When it does, it usually affects how you feel, both emotionally and physically.
- Memories of the trauma might pop up, even when you don’t want them to. You aren’t trying to think about what happened, but suddenly there it is. This doesn’t always stop when you go to sleep, either. It can play out in your dreams, too.
- It might be like someone pressed the “rewind” button on your life. You feel as though you’ve gone back in time and are actually re-living the incident all over again. For a moment or two, you are sucked into a scary time warp and have no awareness of the present.
- Memories aren’t just stories and pictures in the mind. They’re also sensations and feelings in the body. You might feel a sudden and sharp rise of emotions like fear, sadness or guilt. At the same time, your heart might start racing, you start to sweat, or you get nauseous. This may be your body remembering the event on a physical level.
Avoiding reminders of the experience
This can be an obvious “steering clear” of anything that reminds you of the incident. Avoidance can also be more subtle, such as a “dislike” of those things. The truth is you may not even realize that you don’t do some of the things you used to. If you have a new opposition to something you used to do with ease, take that a step further and ask yourself, “What would happen if I did that?” If your answer is that you’d feel scared, worried, uncomfortable or would freak out, then you might be avoiding. I’ll describe three general groupings of things you might avoid:
- You make intentional decisions to stay away from many things that remind you of the stressful experience. If you’re honest with yourself, those things remind you of the pain. This can be people, places, activities or objects. You might avoid going to grocery stores, sitting next to people of the opposite gender on public transportation, or going out at night.
- You may also make a deliberate decision to not think about what happened. Even though you try to control it, memories still pop up without warning. When this happens, you might try to shove them down or keep your mind busy so that it doesn’t have a chance to wander.
- If you dig way down, you might also even try to stay away from feeling emotions. It’s too uncomfortable to let yourself feel fear, sadness, guilt or shame as life goes on. So you avoid feeling it. You just try to keep your head afloat and do everything you can to keep the emotional waters calm.
Change in how you feel
You start to notice a change in your everyday thoughts as well as changes in your day to day feelings. You might be able to easily connect these changes to the difficult experience. More likely you have intense mood swings that you just can’t explain.
- The way that you see yourself and others may start to become less positive. You notice more negative thoughts such as “I’m broken,” “My life has no hope,” or “I can’t trust anyone.” You might just be more cynical. Your sense of safety and trust in others is shaken. Your self-confidence might be compromised.
- You might also start to feel a shift in your usual rise and fall of emotions. You might experience uncomfortable emotions more often such as anger, sadness, guilt or embarrassment. At the same time, you might notice that it’s difficult to experience the positive emotions like happiness, love or satisfaction.
- Waves of loneliness or detachment may rise, even when you are with loved ones. It may so be hard to be around others that you start to isolate yourself. Even things you used to enjoy have lost their flavor of fun.
Changes in what you do
You may see noticeable differences in how you respond to others or situations.
- Being constantly on-guard is the new normal after the trauma. You might be super alert about your environment, especially when you’re out in public. You feel jumpy, shaky, or easy to startle.
- You might feel irritable and at times “snap” at others. These outbursts can be in response to something small, or could even be unprovoked. You may feel that irritation constantly buzzing in the background making calm and thoughtful interactions a strain. This can be particularly hard on parents because children frequently require ongoing patience.
- Keeping your focus on everyday tasks is grueling. Your mind just can’t focus long enough. It may be harder to be on top of your responsibilities at home, work or school. Even fun activities can’t hold your attention for too long.
- You might be doing things that are more dangerous or risky than what you typically would do. Driving carelessly, cutting yourself, making yourself vomit after binge eating, or turning to alcohol or drugs helps you to feel something other than the pain. Momentarily, these behaviors help you feel alive, or numb you. For these few moments, you can forget about the pain.
As there are many types of situations that can be traumatic, there are also a variety of changes that you might see in the aftermath of a trauma. While many notice changes that fall into all four categories described above, others do not. Keep an eye out for my last blog in this series that will describe realistic scenarios to demonstrate how you might see these patterns emerge after a traumatic event.
Check out the whole series on trauma
Part 1: 3 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety and Trauma Reaction
Part 3: Trauma Reaction: 2 Realistic Examples
If you notice that you are struggling to cope with anxiety or trauma
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