Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW
“Something is wrong with me — I know it! Everyone else is calm and cool. I’m the worried mess!” Have you ever thought to yourself that you feel different from other people? That you often feel on edge, while others usually seem nice and even-keeled? Why you feel like holding back when meeting new people, despite wanting to make a new friend or find that special someone?
In therapy, adult clients often minimize experiences that likely caused a great deal of stress in their early lives. Their responses can be, “I was too young to remember,” or “I already dealt with it,” or a flat-out, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Some people who are dealing with the after-effects of complicated trauma, such as a sexual assault, childhood abuse or neglect, or being the victim of a natural disaster, are very aware of their need for counseling. Other adults, who experienced an extremely shameful or humiliating situation, aren’t aware of how the stressful event continues to hold them back. The ones who fall through the cracks often use dysfunctional ways of coping to protect themselves from the painful memories. Addictions, irrational thinking, and over-focusing on other people’s needs are just a few ways that insulate the individual from putting the focus where it needs to be. Disassociating from one’s body might have helped the client cope with the life-changing event, but continued mental checking-out can create problems functioning at home or work.
The bottom line is that when trauma goes unresolved, it continues to create obstacles that inhibit healthy relationships, good health and constructive communication. Signs of unresolved trauma in adults can include:
- Difficulty Living in the Present Trauma victims struggle with truly relaxing because the survival part of the brain is in constant overdrive. Shifting gears from going full speed ahead to really feeling relaxed seems unattainable, due to feelings of hypervigilance and an overactive amygdala – the emotions center in the brain. When the individual experiences some down time to relax, they’re faced with painful memories and emotions. They haven’t learned healthy ways to recharge or decompress, so they’re often just trying to keep their heads above water.
- Poor Self-Care Adults struggling with past traumas often put the needs of others before their own in order to try to ‘keep the peace’ around themselves. Eating healthy, keeping blood sugars even, getting to the doctor, and getting some exercise are not priorities as they emotionally tread water. Body signals of hunger and pain can go unnoticed and get mixed up.
- Proneness to Addictions In these adults, poor impulse control is a result of the willingness to do just about anything to avoid distressing memories. This can lead to problematic habits with shopping, eating, Internet use, etc., which provide unhealthy escape from the painful thoughts. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to escape the emotional turmoil only numbs the pain temporarily. Without intervention, these problematic behaviors can turn into full-blown addictions.
- Being Untrusting of Others Whether it’s in regard to developing a new friendship or taking a romantic relationship to the next level, those who live with the aftermath of trauma often have a fear of getting hurt or rejected, which can be fueled by underlying feelings of shame. Vulnerability, a cornerstone of intimacy, is so difficult. “If people know everything about me, then I’ll run the risk of losing them, so why take the chance of getting hurt?”
For some individuals, symptoms can spiral out of control and wreak havoc on life, work and relationships. How does therapy help? The initial focus of counseling is to help the client get stabilized. A ‘tool box’ of self-soothing strategies is created with the therapist, which helps the client begin the practice of bringing down their distress level in order to take the courageous journey to stop avoiding triggers related to the trauma. Exercises that assist the thinking part of the brain, (the prefrontal cortex), in working better with the survival part of the brain, (the amygdala), such as mid-line crossing exercises, are often used. These help restore the brain functioning and reduce reactivity to trauma triggers.
If you or someone you love is ready to overcome the obstacles that are preventing you from living life to the fullest, you may reach the WCPA offices at 314.275.8599.
Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW, a therapist at West County Psychological Associates, often uses Trauma-Focused, Cognitive Behavior Therapy to lay the groundwork and build the skills needed to help revisit painful events and emotions in a carefully calibrated way. The client goes at his or her own pace in reconstructing the trauma narrative. Angela’s goal is to partner collaboratively with clients to build resilience, cope with stress, and find the inner peace that allows life and relationships to flourish.