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4 Realities About the Consequences of Trauma

Dispelling common misconceptions about the after-effects of experiencing trauma.

Key points

  • Trauma gained significant attention when the overlap between domestic violence and combat was recognized.
  • Common myths about trauma include the belief that it's a lifelong sentence and solely stored in the body.
  • Dissociation during a traumatic event doesn't necessarily lead to a permanent state.

This post is the third of a series about dispelling trauma myths. (Read posts one and two.)

Our current interest in trauma can see its roots in the gatherings of NYC veterans who, post-Vietnam, organized to support each other. Surprisingly, the symptoms they shared were basically the same as those identified in women enduring domestic violence.

At first glance, the risks faced by someone threatened by a bomb and those of an abused woman may seem worlds apart. But for the brain, the sense of safety—or lack thereof—elicits similar consequences. Both individuals may experience profound fear and, crucially, a pervasive hopelessness about overcoming their circumstances. It's this mental defeat that redirects the operation of the nervous system, focusing it solely on survival—the main reason for developing a disorder.

Trauma Alterations

When the brain's ability to regain a sense of safety is compromised, trauma shifts from being an external battle to becoming an internal struggle.

Traumatization—the ongoing process that unfolds within our system during a period of perceived imminent and unresolvable threat regardless of when the traumatic event ended—explains how heightened activation of survival circuits, coupled with internal traumatizing agents, can induce, prolong, or exacerbate symptoms, diminish resilience, and disrupt the brain's ability to anticipate safety—reasons why trauma fails to resolve.

During traumatization, the nervous system keeps making alterations to its regular operation given the brain’s interpretation of our fear. Those alterations are the reason our behavior changes, our reactions amplify, and symptoms emerge, making our life more challenging.

The nature and extent of these alterations vary based on factors such as frequency, duration, age, and type of stress encountered and not solely on the event experienced. In this article, we'll dispel some misconceptions about the effects of these alterations.

Myths About the Effects of Traumatic Experiences

Myth 1: Trauma is a life sentence.

Many individuals express feeling as though trauma has permanently shattered their world. Studies may contribute to this myth because authors often use that type of description to give importance to their studies. What's more, research often focuses on the most severely traumatized individuals, contributing to the perception of trauma as an inescapable fate, consigning us to a distressing existence.

However, trauma consequences move on a spectrum. Many traumatized individuals feel trapped in survival mode and as if joy has left permanently, but this may just be a feeling, rather than actual dysfunction. Only a fraction of those who’ve experienced a traumatic event truly stay stuck in survival mode.

The human capacity for healing is remarkable, and our systems generally begin the process of recovering once we recognize safety. Countless individuals successfully overcome trauma, even those diagnosed with PTSD or C-PTSD.

Source: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels
Source: Anna Tarazevich/Pexels

Myth 2: It’s impossible to be the same person after trauma.

It may be true that some symptoms linger, and some may not completely disappear, especially following prolonged traumatization, life usually starts to return to a semblance of normalcy as fear diminishes, hyper-vigilance wanes, and the nervous system regains equilibrium.

Traumatic memories may not disappear but they may easily stop feeling distressing if addressed. As our brains transition from crisis mode to a calmer and more present state, we perceive reality differently and can assign a more positive meaning to our experiences. If we are successful, our behavior will be pretty much as it was and we will feel as before, or as a better version of ourselves (a phenomenon sometimes called post-traumatic growth).

Myth 3: Trauma is stored in the body.

Trauma is not a physical entity that can be isolated within our bodies like a tumor. Trauma encompasses our psychological, emotional, and also physiological responses to adverse events, which could affect nearly every aspect of our being if left unchecked and if we remain scared and hopeless.

The notion of trauma being "stored" in the body is a common misconception. The literature that includes discussion of "the body" when discussing the aftermath of traumatization emphasizes that traumatic experiences are not solely psychological but also include a physiological component involved in the way our nervous system regulates our behavior. It means that the body gets affected as well and the nervous system accumulates the results.

Some authors claim there is “trauma energy” stored in specific parts of the body. I won’t call that idea a myth, but since it can’t be demonstrated scientifically, it may be better to consider it as speculative.

Myth 4: If someone dissociated during a traumatic event, dissociation becomes a permanent state.

Contrary to popular belief, experiencing dissociation during a traumatic event does not inevitably lead to a permanent state of disconnection. Dissociation may be present in our response to overwhelming stress, but mainly as a mechanism to help us take some mental or physical distance from the distressing experience. While dissociation may persist for some time after the traumatic event, it typically recedes over time, particularly if a trauma disorder doesn't develop.

To avoid long-lasting damage, what really makes a difference is how we manage our emotional reactions in the aftermath. If we understand that what we are experiencing is the struggle of our body to regain stability, we will be helping it reach it. By redirecting our brains from primitive survival instincts toward adaptive engagement with the world, we facilitate healing.

It’s important to move away from victim-blaming narratives and recognize that even when past experiences were painful, it’s us who can shape our future. It can be tempting to see ourselves as helpless victims, but helplessness will increase symptoms, making our lives more difficult or dysfunctional.

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