An all too common experience of trauma survivors is hearing the suggestion, “Why don’t you just get over it?” The idea is that, well, it happened in the past, so it shouldn’t still be affecting you now. It’s as if each moment in life exists in a vacuum, separate and untouched by anything that happened prior to this moment.
The thing is, everything that’s happening right now is impacted by everything that has preceded it.
Our brain filters each perception through a lens of past experience, it predicts the next moment based on past experience, and it reacts with primitive automatic reactions that are—you guessed it—based on past experience.
Obviously, then, our past experiences influence everything in our current life.
Of course, not everyone who has survived trauma in their life will continue to be haunted and controlled by it. Many can and do heal, going on to live content and successful lives with the past nothing more than a fading scar.
At the same time, many others continue to struggle in various ways.
Many mental health systems push for positive, trauma-informed practices and awareness. Unfortunately, their policies are typically based in re-traumatizing narratives and reinforcement of trauma-based self-perceptions.
The following are some ways in which trauma commonly impacts a trauma survivor’s life.
Imagine, as you read through, how different our society might be if systems of care and justice were as trauma-informed as your life might be…
Sense of Self
War, violence, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, chronic invalidation, chronic racism, chronic oppression, poverty—these things profoundly shape and/or re-shape how people view themselves.
If you’ve been ignored, gaslit, blamed, or chronically invalidated, you’re probably going to pretty quickly get the idea that you don’t matter. Worthlessness, feeling invisible, constantly doubting yourself, and feeling two inches tall become a way of life.
Being violated, assaulted, or even assaulting another creates such a fundamental sense of shame deep within one’s soul that it festers like hidden mold behind a layer of glossy paint. Feelings of defectiveness and self-hatred appear reasonable and can be taken as objective fact.
If you’ve been told your whole life that you’re a piece of shit, guess what? You’re probably going to believe that you’re a piece of shit.
You don’t just snap out of these kinds of thinking simply because you get older. And, you definitely don’t stop thinking this way just because someone tells you to get over it.
Our sense of self directly impacts how we interact with others. Self-hatred and feelings of inferiority and worthlessness make it pretty difficult to make small talk or engage in light-hearted verse. Not to mention that these feelings get projected onto others—we love to assume that everyone thinks just like us. If you look at yourself with disdain and fury, you’re pretty likely to assume everyone’s looking at you like that. And, who wants to engage with someone who thinks you’re defective and awful?
We are taught from our first breath how to interact with those around us and what to expect from others. If those people to whom you are closest hurt you, then you learn that everyone will hurt you. Despite “knowing” that it’s inevitable, you will likely spend a great deal of energy trying your darndest to stop that hurt from happening; never really allowing yourself to just be with another.
It is fairly common for those who have experienced interpersonal trauma, specifically, to view people through the lens of the “drama triangle.” This trauma lens perceives all humans to play one of three roles: the perpetrator, the victim, or the rescuer. The thing is, these roles are ever shifting. Any one individual will be perceived as taking on one of these roles at any given time… including oneself.
When people are perceived as always playing a role of a savior, someone to feel sorry for, or a monster, it becomes really difficult to actually see the person before you (or yourself!) for who they really are. Worse, someone always has to be a monster. The fear and anger never end.
We all know that trauma tends to repeat itself across generations. Perhaps there’s some epigenetic piece to this, but there is no doubt as to the role of direct trauma and stress as well.
If you (or those closest to you) are always a potential monster, this sets up an extremely precarious situation in which to bring up a helpless and totally dependent baby. You fear becoming the monster and so might become passive or over-protective. Or, perhaps you do become the monster and repeat the cycle of abuse. Worse, you might start to perceive the child to be the monster.
Often, parents whose needs were never met as a child will look to their own children to get their needs met. This sets up a cycle of parentification, lack of attunement, and emotional neglect. This is the cycle of trauma that stays hidden behind layers of enmeshed love and toxic interdependence.
Parenting is hard when you’ve never had a healthy parent to learn from.
Trauma is a tricky devil. There is no singular path away from pain; what for one person might be a life of self-sabotage and expected failures is, for another, a life of over-achievement and incredible success.
What is shared underneath these seemingly opposite paths is a fundamental sense of inferiority.
For the person who struggles to get ahead and/or to keep a job there are a plethora of merging factors that can cause this. Perhaps academic capabilities have been stunted by severe neglect. Intense stress and emotional overwhelm makes it nearly impossible for many to focus on silly things like algebra or Charles Dickens. If you’re the sort to act out your pain, from the get-go you might be labeled a troublemaker and have others instill repeated messages of your hopeless future. Authority figures are frequently seen as dangerous and hypocritical; if you can’t get along with authority, you’re not likely to do so well in school or job.
Worse, when in chronic survival mode, the future is bleak—if it’s possible to believe in its existence at all. And, so, going to college or saving for what’s ahead just seems, frankly, dumb.
Let’s not forget, of course, that having a mental health diagnosis, especially the more severe ones that are themselves directly associated with trauma, leads to prejudiced hiring and discrimination in the workplace.
On the other hand, hyperfocusing on academics and/or a job might become itself a coping tool to escape the horrors of home/community/peers, etc. Feelings of inferiority might fuel a never-ending effort to prove yourself. Life might become motivated solely or largely by fleeting moments of praise and accolades.
Whichever divergent path you might find yourself on, it’s an exhausting one that rarely is fulfilling and often reinforces that gnawing sense of emptiness and self-hatred.
If you’re controlled by the past, it’s hard to feel free regardless of your external circumstances. It also exponentially increases your odds of losing your external freedom as well.
If you’re trapped by the past, you’re very likely to be trapped, literally, in the present.
Experiencing chronic and multiple traumatic events drastically increases the odds that someone will be arrested and incarcerated. Almost half of all women in jail and a third of men have a lifetime history of PTSD. And that’s just including overt, DSM-defined traumatic experiences. Add in racism, oppression, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect and I would venture to guess that the prevalence approaches 100%.
Being locked up in a psychiatric hospital is inherently associated with past trauma. One study showed that 91% of admitted patients report overt trauma, with 69% reporting repeated, chronic trauma. Another found that almost 100% report overt trauma. Not to mention how common it is for people to be directly traumatized by the treatment experience itself.
The homeless population consists nearly entirely of trauma survivors, particularly childhood trauma. And once homeless, it is common to be trapped in a cycle of housing problems, jailtime for minor infractions, and being sent to the psych ward.
It shouldn’t be that surprising that chronic stress and trauma would leave your body in a toxic state.
Traumatic experiences have been shown repeatedly to be directly associated with: autoimmune disease, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, adolescent obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and Alzheimer’s.
And when you consider all of the above, you can see how quickly things compound.
If you’re lonely and filled with hate for yourself, you’re not likely to be so interested in healthy eating. Conversely, you might become obsessed with some factor of your body like, say, weight, and starve or purge or excessively exercise to make up for your perceived defectiveness.
If you aren’t making money, you can’t even afford to eat healthy or go to some fancy gym. If you live in the United States, you’ll also likely have terrible healthcare, if you have it at all.
The meals in locked facilities are about as healthy as what is fed to lab rats to keep them merely alive. The drugs given and/or forced in these places not only can result in obesity, digestive issues, brain damage, and blood problems, they also can make a person numb, hyperactive and/or shut down, and agitated, leading to its own cascade of health issues.
If you’re addicted to street drugs, alcohol, food, and/or risky lifestyles, health declines fairly rapidly.
Even if you are relatively healthy, trauma can be felt in the body through chronic pain, pseudoseizures, unexplained pain, digestive issues, memory problems, numbness, clumsiness, tight muscles, headaches, teeth erosion and jaw pain, and breathing issues. Any one of these can itself directly lead to more severe injury or health issues over time.
Having a diagnosis, history of hospitalization, and/or history of incarceration directly results in discrimination by healthcare workers. So, even if you’re fortunate to have access to decent healthcare, you’re still not likely to receive it.
Trauma and all of the additive effects of the sequelae of trauma understandably may lead to suicidality, self-harm, and passive suicidal behaviors.
Is it that surprising, then, that those with a significant trauma history have a lifespan decreased by 20 years?
Imagine if our systems of care and our governments understood this. Imagine if they developed programs around these ideas. Imagine if all the money spent on finding the genetic roots of everything mentioned here, or on pharmaceutical interventions, was instead spent on helping people heal from trauma?
Better, what if such funds were directed towards creating a less traumatic society? More equality, more compassion, more social services, greater access to quality healthcare, access to healing modalities not couched in further prejudice, more protection for children, more rehabilitative rather than punitive reactions, more relaxation, and more love and connection. Imagine.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.