Part 3: Be Aware of the Effects and Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
How do I know if my loved one is living with the effects of untreated, unresolved childhood trauma? This is a question I’ve heard more than once. Below are two lists. One list details some of the main effects of childhood trauma and the other outlines many of the symptoms.
Please keep in mind that not every survivor of childhood trauma will experience each of the effects or symptoms outlined below. Survivors experience various effects and symptoms, and to various degrees. The combination of effects and symptoms are as varied as each survivor’s particular history, trauma experience, and current reality.
I. The Effects of Complex Childhood Trauma
Trauma survivors can find it difficult to bond with others, even close family members. It is not uncommon for them to feel little or no connection with people, and to feel tremendous aloneness even when in the company of others. This inability to connect is sometimes further intensified by feeling “different” from everyone else.
2. Attachment Issues
The individual has attachment patterns that are not healthy or fulfilling. Those patterns may include anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, or disorganized attachment. These are marked by dysfunctional relationships, love/hate relationships, relationships that lack deep connections, and/or limerence relationships (being obsessively in love with a person based on fantasy rather than reality.) They may even have relationships marked by a seemingly profound loyalty to their childhood abusers.
3. Crisis of Faith
As coping mechanisms work less and/or in the face of repeated triggers that are intensifying beyond tolerability, complex trauma survivors can reach a crisis of faith. Their faith in people, in causes, in the future, in God, and in self erode more and more. Sadly, even the safe and reliable people and aspects of their lives are viewed more and more as abusive, dangerous, and untrustworthy. This internal, unbearable crisis can be manifest in their sabotaging their worlds or suddenly walking away from the lives they have built.
4. Deep Routed Fear of Trust
It is understandable that many people who have endured abuse and other forms of trauma question the safety of people and situations. The severely traumatized brain of a complex trauma survivor is easily overwhelmed and often finds it very difficult to trust others, and therefore shields itself. What little trust might exist is very easily eroded.
The survivor’s brain is constantly scanning for threats. As a result, defensiveness is frequently employed through avoidance and circular discussions, especially in their intimate relationships. It is important to remember that this is not a character issue, but a response to traumatic injury. It is part and parcel of the tremendous childhood threats that have caused the individual to experience hypervigilance and flashbacks, and to have a very low threshold for conflict and for others being displeased with him or her. This is also why many trauma survivors are people pleasers, as people pleasing is a form of defensiveness, helping to guard the individual from the displeasure of others. It is important to note a seeming contradiction, which is that many trauma survivors will not actively defend themselves from lies and accusations, and will not adequately explain themselves. Again, conflict is excruciating for many survivors, causing them to experience emotional paralysis, which in the moment serves as a defense mechanism. These types of complexities are the constant reality for many trauma survivors.
Dissociation is a coping mechanism the brain uses during repeated or perpetual abuse. It involves a detachment from reality that can be as mild as day dreaming or as severe as dissociative identity disorder. This mental process produces a lack of connectivity between a person’s thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, and sense of self, and it interferes with how a person experiences events.
7. Emotional Dysregulation
While many adults can regulate how they experience and respond to external events and interactions, survivors of trauma find this difficult to do, especially as it relates to loved ones and authority figures. For one thing, survivors of childhood trauma typically lacked caregivers that modeled healthy emotional regulation. For another, because of the abuse and neglect, they were robbed of the opportunity to develop the psychological and emotional health necessary to regulate. The consequence is that as adults they tend to over analyze and easily misread facial expressions, body language, tones, words, and actions. Internally, they can also experience exaggerated emotional responses to everyday dynamics, even if they are not showing it on the outside.
This includes distressing visual images, intrusive thoughts, body memories, nightmares, and emotional flashbacks. With emotional flashbacks, the survivor responds to a current situation based on a past traumatic experience. This can cause his response to seem irrational to others in the moment. However, his response is based on very real and intense negative feelings he is experiencing, and he is often not aware that the intense emotions are flashbacks.
9. Hypervigilance About People
Hypervigilance is the scanning of one’s environment for danger. It is a normal response when danger is present or perceived. For many complex trauma survivors, danger is perceived in all human dynamics, and survivors therefore tend to remain on hyper alert. Because they can be particularly sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, their fight, flight, or freeze response is regularly engaged. This is a profoundly taxing state for the nervous system. The nervous system is meant to be able to rest from hypervigilance, but cannot in the case of many complex trauma survivors.
10. Profoundly Wounded Inner Child
If there were ever a person whose inner child needs to be understood, it is the survivor of complex childhood trauma. He or she has a deep reservoir of neglect and unmet needs from childhood. He has been left believing that he is bad, unimportant, and insignificant. That wounded and damaged child remains a driving force within him, searching for safety, protection, and love.
II. The Symptoms of Complex Childhood Trauma
Trauma survivors, even many of the ones in therapy, deny, dissociate, and refuse to look at their trauma. This is because facing trauma is painful, tremendously taxing, and potentially very scary. It is also the only way of living, thinking, and navigating that they know. Facing the trauma means moving into a completely new way of being. And that can be terrifying. The price of not resolving that trauma is far worse than the pain of facing it and healing, but facing it is a terrifying prospect nonetheless for many survivors.
If your loved one is experiencing a number of the effects or symptoms listed above, you may want to consider reaching out for help. The road to recovery can be very long. It can take years and years to process through the profoundly deep and destructive implications of childhood trauma. Yet, it is a worthwhile journey that can offer tremendous healing and liberation, step by step.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Part 2: Be Aware of the Dilemma that Trauma Survivors Experience
Before we delve into recognizing the symptoms and effects of trauma, I thought it would be helpful to cover the dilemma of how those symptoms can stay under the radar. The awareness of this dilemma can help us to be more sensitive to those who are experiencing traumatic stress.
I remember years ago a brilliant, accomplished lady came to see me. We’ll call her Debra. Debra had been an honor student in college. She graduated with several distinctions and was very much sought after in her industry. Shortly after graduating from university she became the head of a large conglomerate of international companies.
If you crossed paths with Debra, you would encounter a woman dressed in power suits, traveling in first class, and walking with focus and purpose. If you chatted with her, you would find her to be exceptionally caring, friendly, sociable, and articulate. If you were in her inner circle, you would enjoy catered parties in her well appointed home and lavish gifts when you had a birthday or anniversary. When people around her were in crisis, she could be relied on for financial and practical help. She was viewed as the image of success.
But what many did not know was that Debra was a survivor of complex childhood trauma. Abandoned by her parents as a young girl, she was raised by extended family. Prior to her teens she was repeatedly abused by men in her neighborhood. Her childhood had been filled with personal heartache and pain. Yet, like many trauma survivors, she did a masterful job of hiding or camouflaging her pain and her symptoms, showing up as the picture of stability, capability, and strength.
What finally brought her to chat with me was that the anxiety she suffered was becoming more and more severe, and harder and harder to hide and to manage. Because her trauma had remained untreated, it was doing what trauma does. It was morphing beyond her usual coping mechanisms. This can be a good thing because this type of crisis point compels many trauma survivors to finally reach out for help. The dilemma was that because she still appeared on the outside to be fine, her highly stressful life kept spinning with expectations, demands, and triggers that complicated her recovery process.
Debra is a fitting portrait of a wide spectrum of trauma survivors. Many of the effects and symptoms of trauma can blend into the fabric of a survivor’s life. Trauma survivors can appear to function quite well in the day to day life of their broader world - work, church, school, social gatherings. They can mask symptoms and use their talents and personality strengths to appear unaffected and to compensate for the trauma symptoms that do seep through. This is part of their coping.
The “unseen” nature of trauma, and of many mental health issues, lends itself to this masking. This is unlike physical illnesses where the symptoms may be glaring (such as weight loss, loss of hair, physical weakness, hospitalization, the inability to walk, etc.). The seen nature of physical illness/injury elicits the compassion and adjusted expectations of others.
Sadly, for many trauma survivors (and others with mental health issues), the conundrum is that even when they reach a crisis point with their trauma and need tremendous amounts of support and understanding, those around them do not necessarily adjust to accommodate the recovery because the person looks, acts, and speaks well enough. Unlike cancer or emergency surgery, where people more easily connect with the reality that the unwell person just cannot show up as he or she did before, trauma injury is not well understood and its impact can be difficult for others to grasp, even when they become aware of the person's trauma.
This is part of the reason why there is sometimes shock when a boss, or a colleague, or a friend tries to take his or her life, or "suddenly" cracks and is institutionalized, or becomes an addict. Even when that person's trauma diagnosis has been known to others, many people still have a difficult time connecting with the reality of what that diagnosis means. Onlookers scratch their heads as they try to wrap their minds around how someone who did not seem depressed, or who had a good career and a wonderful family, or who just contributed in yesterday’s staff meeting, would do such a thing as attempt suicide. But the reality is that many survivors of complex trauma reach an acute crisis point where they are fighting for their lives, just like the cancer patient or the pedestrian who was hit by a vehicle is fighting for his life. The fact that it is a fight for their lives and for their very survival is just not as evident as the cancer patient’s fight, because many trauma survivors, in professional and social settings, will try as best as they can to manage the triggers that are causing internal stress responses.
This unseen nature of the trauma injury means the survivor must try to navigate through even the heightened crisis points without the benefit of adjusted expectations of family, friends, colleagues, employees, and others, even while in treatment. If treatment looked like a bed in an intensive care unit, expectations would more readily adjust. Priorities would be reassessed. But the dilemma for the complex trauma survivor who has reached a crisis point internally, is that he might still look normal on the outside while battling for his life on the inside. (And we have not discussed the added dilemma of when the symptoms are seen by others but misinterpreted and misunderstood. As you would imagine, that can further complicate dynamics.)
If your loved one is a trauma survivor, or battling a mental health issue, your empathy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, time, and support may be the closest he comes to an environment where he can have the space to stabilize, find help, and begin the long but priceless road to recovery. Do not underestimate your role here, even when tough love is required, such as insisting on treatment or other interventions. And if you know others who are in trauma recovery, prayerfully consider why God has placed you there and consider ways to facilitate the healing process.
Part 1: Be Aware of Adverse Childhood Experiences
One of the questions I have been receiving since my article on marriage and childhood trauma is: “How do I know if my spouse or fiancé has experienced childhood trauma?” As we consider whether a loved one is experiencing traumatic stress, it is key to establish what trauma is. With that in place, we are then better able to explore whether a loved one may be experiencing traumatic stress.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is not determined simply by an event or an environment. What makes the event traumatic is the impact it has had on the individual. Certainly, some types of events and dynamics are more typical of being experienced as traumatic, as you will see below. But not everyone who experiences the same event suffers traumatic stress. For example, two people may witness a violent crime. One may experience traumatic stress and the other may not.
So what exactly makes the event a traumatic experience? A traumatic event, in very simple terms, involves an isolated experience or an ongoing dynamic or ongoing dynamics that completely overwhelm the individual's ability to cope or to integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. Here, it is crucial to understand that a person who has experienced childhood trauma does not always register it as trauma, even as an adult. So while the event may be causing tremendous traumatic stress, the adult survivor may be unaware that some of what they are experiencing is traumatic stress.
How Can I Tell If My Spouse Is Experiencing the Effects of Trauma?
One of the ways to help determine if a spouse has unresolved traumatic stress is to know the adverse childhood experiences that can cause traumatic stress. From there, you can explore if your spouse has endured any of those adverse childhood experiences.
As we delve into a list of adverse childhood experiences, it is important to note that even if someone has had any of the following experiences, it does not automatically mean they have unresolved issues from trauma. There are several factors that play a part in whether or not the event caused lasting traumatic stress, or even any traumatic stress at all. One such factor to be taken into account is the presence of a nurturing adult in the child’s life. A loving and supportive grandparent, a tuned in teacher, or a safe and positive neighbor can help to build resilience and to foster healing in a child. Another factor is the frequency of the event, not just the intensity of the event. A seemingly “mild” difficult event that happens repeatedly can cause as much traumatic stress as a one-time horrific event. Whether or not the child had access to help and to appropriate intervention is also a key factor in whether the event causes longterm traumatic stress. This means that the below list is a helpful guide, not a diagnostic chart.
Adverse Childhood Experiences that Lend Themselves to Traumatic Stress
If your loved one has suffered any of the below adverse childhood experiences, and certainly if he suffered them with any amount of repetition and frequency, it is very possible that he has experienced childhood trauma.
One of the things I have discovered over the years is that trauma is filled with nuances. Every trauma experience is unique because it has its own variables. One of the best ways to begin to understand the impact of your spouse’s life experiences is to know his story. Listen to him share. Be curious, be caring, and be kind as he shares.
This list might not reflect only your spouse’s experiences. Perhaps you found some of your life experiences chronicled there. If that’s the case, be patient, caring, and kind with yourself. Seeking help in order to process the trauma that might be there is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your family.
In the next post I’ll explore, among other things, the behaviors that point to unresolved trauma.
For help resolving traumatic stress, you are welcome to contact us here.
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Complex trauma from childhood is an unseen force that wields tremendous power in many a marriage when it remains untreated. If you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, you likely can relate to the constant pull that goes on beneath the surface of your marriage.
It is like a car that lacks alignment. No matter how much you turn the steering wheel to straighten the car, it keeps veering off the road. Like that vehicle, the struggle to center the marriage is real and seemingly constant. It is a struggle that absolutely complicates the normal stresses and strains which accompany a marital relationship.
It is true that the survival statistics for these kinds of marriages are not encouraging, but that does not mean marital success is not possible. And while the responsibility is not yours alone, there are some important foundational anchors that can be very meaningful if you want to help yourself, your spouse, and your family survive the tenuous waters. Here are seven of those foundational anchors.
1. Understand the Nature of Complex Childhood Trauma.
The first anchor is being able to understand the nature of the issue. If you do not have at least a cursory understanding of trauma, you will likely weary yourself mentally, emotionally, and even physically trying to out fires, establish rhythms, and solve problems. Trauma issues in marriage need more than good communication skills and weekly date nights to solve the problem - though communication skills and date nights are important, too! Trauma issues need, among other things, understanding.
So what should you understand about your spouse and the complex childhood trauma he or she has suffered? For one thing, know that traumatic childhood experiences are far from superficial. Traumatic childhood experiences go way beyond feelings and actually change the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. One of the complications of this is that the survivor’s brain is virtually always in a state of hypervigilance, constantly scanning the environment for threats. The overactive fight, flight or freeze mode lends itself to the body’s nervous system being easily activated. This is taxing to the mind and body of the survivor.
If you are the spouse of a trauma survivor it is important for you to note that your spouse may not appear to be hypervigilant, but there is tremendous hypervigilance going on internally. This has profound implications for your marital dynamic, and it explains why gaining emotional and relational traction may seem so difficult. Your spouse, due to the trauma, lives in survival mode. Building lasting marital intimacy in survival mode is quite a feat.
Understanding the nature of complex trauma and its physiological impact on the survivor helps you to put your spouse’s actions and reactions in an appropriate and constructive context. You are then better positioned to engage with him in helpful and meaningful ways.
2. Know That You Are Not The Problem
Even when survivors of complex childhood trauma are married to safe, sympathetic, emotionally healthy spouses, they guard themselves and remain hypervigilant toward their spouses. So it is important that you as the spouse remember this: While you might have problems, and while you might not always handle the problems correctly, and while you are most certainly not perfect, you are not the problem.
This knowledge is an important anchor because one of the survival mode mechanisms of trauma survivors is to blame the spouse. You are the closest one to the survivor, and, just based on proximity and the nature of marriage, you will activate the survivor’s triggers. The defensiveness in marriage that survivors can be prone to is what makes it tremendously difficult for them to be objective. The weight of this blame over time can be crushing to the spouse of the trauma survivor. Even avoidant trauma survivors, who by nature have an easy going and non confrontational way about them, can deploy an arsenal of blame when confronted. This is because they so easily feel criticized and threatened.
This dynamic of blame tends to be very confusing for spouses. They begin to wonder what they are doing wrong. They begin to doubt even the sound judgement and wisdom they possess. These spouses need to remember that the trauma brain is continuously scanning the environment for danger. What the non-trauma spouse says or does gets evaluated based on that scan, and their words and actions are misread by the trauma survivor as a personal attack. The trauma brain becomes trapped in a cycle of negative internal dialogue, and the sympathetic spouse is viewed as an enemy and a danger, rather than as an ally and intimate friend. As a result, the non-trauma spouse is treated defensively. What that defensiveness looks like varies from trauma survivor to trauma survivor.
Objectivity is one of your greatest allies when it comes to this issue. Objectivity will allow you to differentiate between when you are at fault and need to take action to right your wrong, and when your spouse is projecting a perceived fault onto you. This will help guard you from pervasive frustration and self doubt. This is good and important self care.
3. Recognize That Emotional Intimacy Will Likely Be A Struggle
Those who survive complex childhood trauma are often caught in a vicious cycle. They long for intimacy, but the very stresses that are a normal part of building a meaningful marital relationship trigger their defenses and their coping mechanisms. They typically end up in one of three modes - fight, flight, or freeze. Sadly, the very intimacy they crave, they sabotage or derail.
When you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, it is key that you learn how to not take their rejection personally. It really is them, not you. Again, this does not mean that you have no weaknesses or areas in need of growth. But even if you are emotionally healthy and safe, trauma can significantly complicate your spouse’s ability to bond with you in deep and meaningful ways. Their fight, flight, or freeze mechanism is so easily triggered that they are in survival mode even when there is no real danger or threat. Unfortunately, not only does this mean that marital intimacy is very elusive, but it means that you likely experience a great deal of emotional rejection and abandonment, even if that is not your spouse’s intention. And your spouse is likely very unaware that he is isolating you.
Note that your spouse may live in an emotionally anorexic state, starved of true connection. This is because many survivors of childhood trauma find some reprieve in aloneness, and even reach points where they are prepared to totally disengage from those who love them most. This is why trauma survivors find it easy to hold on to fantasies. A fantasy is the facade of being in a relationship without having to navigate through genuine connection. This is a lonely and disconnected way to live.
Your spouse’s emotional distance is not because you are unlovable or undesirable. His or her emotional distance is a product of trauma.
4. Empathize with His Inner World
If you are married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma, understanding his or her inner world is one of the keys to cultivating a meaningful marriage. I have heard trauma survivors describe their inner worlds as “a constant noise” they live with. The noise has a lot to do with the hyper vigilance we touched on. Sadly, these survivors are used to the noise, and they own it as normal. Because the trauma impacted them at such an early age they do not know anything other than the noise. It is their normal. But this noise profoundly affects how they perceive, interpret, and experience life. The “noise” can also go up in volume depending on if a situation is particularly overwhelming.
Think of it like this. You are walking down the side walk in a neighborhood where snakes have recently been spotted. Everywhere you step you are cautious, and you frequently glance behind you to ensure that nothing is slithering along at your heels. Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you think you see something curled up in the grass. At that moment, without any conscious effort on your part, an alarm is fired in your brain and a physiological sequence of events is activated. Hormones are released. Your heart rate speeds up. Your blood flow engages with a new priority, which is to help your arms and legs fight or flee. And your brain quickly determines which one to do, fight or flee. This all happens in a split second. Then you realize it’s a false alarm. What you are seeing is just a garden hose. You breathe a sigh of relief, but now you’ve been spooked. You hasten your steps to get out of that neighborhood. Finally, once you are out of harms way, your heart rate begins to return to normal, your blood flow returns to supporting your vital organs, and you are no longer in fight or flight mode. All is well.
Now, imagine living in that hypervigilant or “spooked” mode constantly. Imagine not being able to find an exit from the neighborhood. That would be an exhausting way to live. But that is how many survivors of childhood trauma live everyday. In childhood they lived with threat and danger. Not only did the trauma convince them that they are perpetually unsafe (there is always a snake at their heels), but it ravaged their neurobiological development. Now the alarms are constantly going off and there is little reprieve. The ability to regulate thinking, feeling, and physical sensations is profoundly fractured, and the ability to have appropriate and fitting internal responses to adult stresses is severely compromised. Their brains have difficulty properly regulating the flight, fight, or freeze response. As a result, it is difficult for them to fully experience enthusiasm and absorb good experiences, though on the outside they may look like they are living a well adjusted life.
It is not hard to empathize when you understand these inner realities with which childhood trauma survivors live. Meeting your spouse with kindness and compassion is a loving way to respond to their hypervigilance. You may be the first safe family member with whom your spouse has ever lived. This is a tremendous opportunity for you to build toward intimacy.
5. Connect the Dots
Complex childhood trauma often, though not always, has its roots and origins buried amid the parents, caregivers and/or authority figures of the trauma survivor's childhood life. As unbelievable as it may seem, some trauma survivors find it very difficult to view those adult figures as having harmed them. Instead, survivors may blame themselves. They may also blame the non-abusive parent. And incredibly, many of them blame their spouses. Some trauma survivors are not even aware of their trauma, even though they live with the effects. Furthermore, it is common for them to not see how the poor and dysfunctional relational examples they may have been exposed to in childhood have distorted the way they perceive and engage in relationships.
While it may be virtually impossible for you to connect the historical dots of trauma in a way that your spouse can see and acknowledge them, being able to connect those dots for the sake of your own awareness is valuable. It will help you to understand and counter your spouse’s negative self talk and misdirected blame. It is important to note that countering his or her self talk and misdirected blame does not mean being combative or argumentative. But it does mean speaking truth to yourself. And it also means being willing to speak the truth to your spouse in a fitting manner when appropriate.
Survivors of complex childhood trauma are very beholden to their dysfunctional childhood blueprints. Your willingness to gently counter the lies and assumptions can shed needed light for them. It can help them to challenge their internal narratives and begin the process of discovering how to free their brains from the trauma imprint. But remember, this is not about strong arming your spouse. You cannot force him or her to connect the dots.
6. Weather the Storms (in an appropriate manner)
The reality of being married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma is that it will often feel like storms are constantly rolling in to shore. These storms can be costly, exhausting, and overwhelming. They can accost every area of your life in ways that are difficult to quantify.
Because survivors of complex childhood trauma can function with the appearance of normalcy in everyday life, especially if they are very talented, there can be such ambiguity in your experience. On one hand, your life can have the appearance of, or potential for, what others would call success. On the other hand, you are often simultaneously recovering from a storm, experiencing a storm, and watching new storm clouds gather. It can be a steady, unrelenting cascade. This makes it seemingly impossible to gain stability and traction in your life.
Feelings of discouragement are common here. It is disheartening to feel like your life takes two to ten steps back maritally, relationally, financially, and/or professionally every time you try to take one step forward. Much of what you gain, you perhaps feel like you lose. There is a high cost to living with the effects of unhealed complex trauma. If you have children, it is even more complicated. You are likely doing your best to create as normal a life as possible for them, while being regularly confronted with the reality that you cannot shield them from all of the implications of living a life that is affected by trauma.
If you decide to work toward your marriage surviving, there will be storms to weather. (Please note, if there is abuse, weathering the storms does not mean staying and enduring it. You need to seek professional help and intervention immediately for the safety of yourself and your children.) Weathering the storms will require tenacity, but please understand that it is not your responsibility to “fix” the trauma. Weathering the storms will also likely require the help of a knowledgeable trauma counselor who can help you identify what storms to weather and how to weather them. The journey is not in vain if you walk it constructively and with intentionality.
7. Pursue Health
While every marriage has to work through inevitable tensions and stresses, the toxicity that comes with trauma can saturate a marriage with a disastrous cocktail of chronic misunderstandings, alienated individuals, and hopeless hearts. But you can help to turn the tide and be an active participant in God’s redemptive work in your marriage. You can help to bring health and restoration to your family. Here are a few key ways to pursue health in a marriage plagued by complex childhood trauma.
There is no doubt about it, being married to a survivor of complex childhood trauma is not easy. But it is possible to anchor yourself in the midst of the tumultuous waters. Your life may feel like it constantly shifts, but you as a person can have a strong, resilient internal fortitude that can foster a measure of stability for your family.
You do not have to journey alone. For additional help, visit us here.
(Note from the author: Trauma takes so many shapes and forms. If there is an area of trauma you have questions about or would like to see discussed, please contact me and let me know.)
Copyright © 2018 Dr. Dawn-Marie Pearson
Dr. Dawn-Marie shares a refreshing blend of professional insights and personal stories in this encouraging blog.