Taking a Closer Look at Trauma

by Gary Gilles

The effects of traumaTrauma is one of those words that can have different meanings for different people. We typically think of a traumatic event as something that causes a person to feel an unusually high level of emotional distress. Most of us would agree that “big” events like fighting in combat, barely surviving a natural disaster, being the victim of rape or a physical assault or surviving a serious car accident would all qualify as traumatic experiences. These, and others like them, can be life-altering encounters and in some cases leave long-lasting emotional consequences.

Small traumas

But there are other life experiences, small traumas, which are also difficult to live with. They are like a splinter that gets under the skin. Initially, it hurts and is sore to the touch. But, eventually the pain subsides and you don’t notice it any longer. That is until it starts to get infected. It could lay dormant for a long time with layers of skin hiding it from view. But one day, something gets under the skin and infects the foreign object and that area becomes inflamed.

That is similar to the path small traumas can take in your life on an emotional level. You fully remember the breakup of that relationship months ago or the humiliating way you were fired from your job last year, but you felt you were over these losses; you moved on. And sometimes that is exactly what you do. You remove the emotional splinter, and allow the wound to heal. But, there are other life situations where the wound you thought was long gone reminds you that it is still there. For example, a new job offer that is abruptly rescinded because of a technical oversight brings back all the feelings of rejection you experienced in those agonizing days following your firing last year. Strong emotions such as fear, self-doubt, anxiety, depression and sadness can easily be triggered by current situations. These can be reminders that more work needs to be done to bring full healing.

Trauma and perception

We all experience the small traumas of life to some degree. Some people are able to manage the stress of those challenges better than others. The reason: it boils down to resiliency. Some people have had life experiences that have equipped them to be more resilient and adaptable when faced with difficult circumstances. Others tend to be more rigid and have a much harder time adapting to changes they don’t want or expect. What one person considers traumatic, another person may simply perceive as a life challenge.

5 Unexpected paths that can lead to trauma

Because perception is a key factor in whether a person interprets a life situation as traumatic or merely a challenge to navigate, it requires some self-reflection to assess where you are on that continuum. Here are five common yet difficult life events that can lead some people to unexpected trauma. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list you can apply some of the ideas to other situations that may be more applicable for you.

  1. The breakup of the family is commonplace. But, for a child, the loss of that intact family can haunt them the rest of their lives, especially in adulthood when it comes time for them to decide whether to marry or have children. As adults of divorce, confidence in their ability to build and maintain a secure, committed relationship is often weak, even after they remarry.
  2. Bullying. It is often assumed that someone who was bullied as a child has grown up with a few scars here and there but that they have largely put those memories and experiences behind them. They need to function in the adult world now, right? But, studies have shown that the negative effects of bullying can still be seen decades later. Many adults, bullied as children still experience depression, anxiety, sadness and loneliness on a regular basis. This can affect their ability to work, trust people, develop emotionally close relationships and regulate their own emotional responses to others. These feelings can easily be triggered in the present through contact with impatient, angry and insensitive people.
  3. Emotional neglect. Emotional neglect is most profound when it is experienced as a child in the family of origin. Emotional neglect leaves no physical scars but those whose emotional needs were routinely neglected as children are much more at risk for major depression and anxiety as adults. They are also prone to interpret small traumas as debilitating events. Being the victim of emotional neglect also creates a major obstacle to developing emotionally close relationships with others. Any hint of rejection can trigger those latent feelings.
  4. School failure. Every child has to go through the education system. Those that do poorly in school and/or dropout usually have a perception that they are not smart. This perception often carries over into other areas of their adult life and sabotages efforts to succeed in non-academic achievements such as work, relationships and managing finances.
  5. Friendship loss. The loss of an important friendship can be similar to losing a family member; sometimes even more traumatic. Sometimes friends understand us in deeper ways than any family member can. When that bond is lost through unresolvable conflict or death, there can be a lingering sense of grief that can become chronic.

Though these five issues can lead to the experience of trauma, they need not end that way. The starting point for healing is to first acknowledge when emotional reminders arise. This may be a sign that there is an unresolved emotional splinter that needs to be addressed. Then, start with the emotion and see where it leads. If you get stuck or lose the path, reach out for help from a professional who can walk that path with you and bring complete healing to that wound.

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