e often wonder why people act the way they do. Was it an experience in their childhood or recurring adult trauma? Did they get their hearts broken? Are they going through issues presently? While we can’t fully exempt questionable actions from personality traits, sometimes it might simply be reactions to trauma.
In retrospect, I now understand why Sarah, a middle-aged doctor, became avoidant after her divorce, and why Peter, my cousin, battled with anxiety after he lost his daughter. Understandably, not everyone who goes through trauma generates a traumatic response, but for the most part, it’s natural for survival instincts to kick in, and for our system to create coping mechanisms to cushion the effect of trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma is simply our brains responding to a negatively impactful happenstance in our lives. It could be abuse of any form, betrayed trust or physical accidents. This reaction to trauma is an extreme coping mechanism the body develops to protect itself from future recurrence. A trauma response is normal in everyone, but some individuals might find moving on a tad bit difficult than others.
As humans, we process trauma differently. While isolation might be a person’s response, another might reflect in the form of aggression and/or paranoia. Trauma might be the reason behind the uncontrollable emotions that cloud our sense of judgment oftentimes. Being aware of trauma and ways to process it might be the kickstart we need to break free from the unassuming shackles of trauma.
We’ve curated some common reactions to trauma that might be helpful…
According to psychologists’ studies, there are 4 common responses to trauma the mental health community recognizes. As humans, when faced with scary situations, we either stand and fight or duck our heads and take flight. Understanding these reactions might help you become aware of human behavior and our response in the presence of trauma.
The fight trauma reaction can be both beneficial and lethal, depending on the mode of expression and duration of exposure to the causative trauma. When a person is faced with danger, the natural human instinct might be to respond with a fight to protect oneself. While this helps an individual stay safe and create boundaries, when untamed, it could create a fastidious person with a sense of entitlement and aggression.
The ability to remove oneself from an unhealthy and/or dangerous situation is a common reaction to trauma. As the saying goes: “we live to fight another day.” In situations where the brain sends signals to retreat and take cover, this response kicks in. Whether it’s a physical or mental danger, this could be a lifesaving response, but it becomes toxic when a person perceives the slightest happenstance as danger and chooses to run from every situation. This could lead to constant restlessness, anxiety, and the need for constant activities.
Have you been faced with danger or an inconvenient situation, and would rather pause on everything? Sometimes, in an attempt to take action when an unexpected situation hits us, we freeze in time and hope it will all go away. Freezing and pausing in real time are common reactions to trauma that could help us recalculate, meditate and maintain our inner zen. It all depends on the urgency of the danger at hand. Imagine a hungry lion or moving train charging towards you, and you freeze—safety unguaranteed. Always zoning out isn’t the answer to every impending danger, but a professional therapist can help navigate these mental responses in a beneficial way.
Fawning and people-pleasing might not be one of the popular responses to trauma, but is evident in abusive relationships. When under constant narcissism, a person might become acquainted with a defense mechanism of people pleasing to pacify the abuser or abusive situation. This approach might help a person take on empathy in dealing with relationships, but constantly playing the jolly good fellow role could lead to zero boundaries and exploitation.
Can I respond to trauma in more ways than one?
The simple answer is yes. Trauma hits us at different phases of life, and depending on the situation at hand, we respond differently. Trauma response isn’t always spelled out in black and white. Some days we flee and other days we fight. We might also freeze in the middle of a fight response. Case in point, the above responses are guidelines to bring things into focus, but oftentimes, we find ourselves in between most of these trauma responses.
Other common reactions to trauma include intrusive and recurring thoughts of the incident(s), isolation and emotional detachment, constant sense of danger, confusion, stress and fatigue, numb feeling, palpitation, substance abuse and addictions, nausea, sleep problems.
Helpful ways to recover from trauma
Firstly, understand that you’re not alone, and most of us have dealt with trauma in unbecoming ways. The journey to recovery/healing isn’t an instant one. It takes time and corrective behavioral patterns to change the way we would naturally respond to trauma.
#1. Recognize it is normal
A man who lost his child or a girl involved in a terrorist attack should understand that they are expected to be traumatized. They should also realize that although their previously normal lives might be far-fetch, it will eventually normalize with time.
#2. Encourage yourself
Be patient, because Rome wasn’t built in a day. One of the common reactions to trauma is the tendency to be critical of oneself. Be your best friend, because you need YOU the most right now.
#3. Avoid triggers
From related conversations to substance abuse, avoid anything that could amplify the situation. While a place, name or thing could force you to relive the trauma, depending on substances like alcohol could complicate issues.
#4. Stay busy and productive
When Derek realized the reason behind his failed relationships was childhood trauma, he became depressed again. This time, he was willing to risk it all–his job, health, everything. He called in sick for a whole week and could barely make it out of bed for a quick bath. Ironically, we feel better when we stay busy and go through our normal daily activities. Set out time to exercise, meditate, and be involved in mood-boosting activities.
For ages, therapy has been found to help correct deeply rooted behavioral patterns, even those that stem from post-traumatic disorders. Consider reaching out to a professional to help manage toxic situations/responses better, because confronting and dealing with the trauma is a viable option than avoidance.
Featured image: primipil/iStock
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