Adult Symptoms of Trauma – A Quiet Epidemic

The psychoanalyst Alice Miller wrote: “the true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality—the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings. It is part of the kaleidoscope of life that these feelings are not only happy, beautiful, or good but can reflect the entire range of human experience, including envy, jealousy, rage, disgust, greed, despair, and grief. But this freedom cannot be achieved if its childhood roots are cut off.”

The SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCSTI) reports that by the age of 16, two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event. TWO THIRDS. The substance abuse and mental health services administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the US department of health and human services that leads public health efforts to advance mental health in the country. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes feelings of horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs. This can encompass many different situations and may even be different for each person who experiences a specific event.

Potentially traumatic events can include:

  • Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Community or school violence
  • Racism and microaggressions
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Sudden or violent death of a loved one
  • Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
  • Natural disasters or terrorism
  • Refugees or war experiences
  • Assault
  • Serious accidents
  • Life-threatening illness; Chronic illness or multiple surgeries

If untreated, childhood trauma can have long-lasting effects. Trauma can affect children’s mood, development, and their ability to regulate their emotions at the neural level. Consequently, as an adult, they are two times times more likely to develop major depression and three times more likely to develop clinical anxiety.

Symptoms of Trauma in Adults

There are a number of different ways in which symptoms can manifest for adults living with childhood trauma. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut recipe to follow when diagnosing an adult with lingering signs of trauma, however, there may be some common physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Listed below are just a few symptoms of someone living with trauma. It’s important to know that these are not static, nor linear.

  • Anger
  • Hypervigilance
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Depression
  • Panic Attacks
  • Physical Pain
  • Poor Concentration
  • Shakiness
  • Night Terrors
  • Lack of Energy
  • Physical Illness
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Intrusive Thoughts
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Eating Disorders
  • Impulsiveness
  • Isolation
  • Numbness or Seeming Callousness
  • General disorientation/Confusion

Based on my clinical work, these are just a few of the LESSER known experiences of adult trauma survivors:

-You feel no one understands you, and perhaps no one will. Adult trauma survivors sometimes say, “I don’t fit or belong anywhere or with anyone”.

-You may minimize. Adult survivors say to me, after describing extremely painful experiences, “but, doesn’t everybody go through that? “
One meme that was shared with me by an adult survivor said:
Get up. No one‘s coming to help you. This is a trauma response

-You overperform. Meanwhile, you’re silently dreading the mountain of tasks you’ve signed up for — a list that only seems to get longer as the week wears on.

-You’ve got a love/hate relationship with work or being helpful, and no matter how many times you try to break up with the word “yes,” saying “no” just doesn’t come naturally to you. Extra hours to work on the weekend? You’re the first one in line.

-You may spew emotions seemingly out of nowhere. To others, who are not part of your trauma history, it might seem random or unfair. I have found that people described as “drama queens “ often have unspoken histories that are very painful.

-You might be unloading feelings onto distant strangers. For example, you might be able to talk to your deepest feelings to a server, bartender, or someone you just met at a party, but not to friends or family who have known you for a while. This might seem paradoxical, but it’s not. You do not want to be seen as a burden to those closest to you, which means you’re reluctant to open up when you’re struggling, so you only do so when you’re on the brink of totally breaking down, because you’ve held it all in for far too long.

Similarly, social distance may make it easier to express feelings.
Hello, Social Media: Sure, I’ll tell you all about my trauma. That way, if someone bails on us for being messy or “too much,” it stings less, and the stakes don’t feel as high.

-You feel guilty when you’re angry at other people. You might get angry, only to feel like a terrible person for having feelings at all five minutes later. You might even feel like you’re not “allowed” to be upset with other people. One adult symptom of this is constantly apologizing. In my experience, adult survivors of trauma are apologizing for their very existence. So even minor infractions may send them into a flurry of apologizing. 

-You feel responsible for other people’s reactions. Whenever you recommend a restaurant, a movie, or a book to someone, there’s a moment or two of intense panic. “What if they hate it?” Sometimes you just let other people make decisions on where we go and what to do, because if something goes awry, it won’t be because they failed” to make a good choice.

-You find yourself compromising your personal choices. This can be difficult to notice at first. You might think of yourself as being chill, good at compromise, easy to get along with. But if you pay attention to the conversations you’re having, you might notice you’re a little too agreeable. Sometimes it’s seemingly benign things, like saying you don’t have a preference for what you want to eat for dinner when you actually do. Other times, it may include validating a perspective or behavior that you don’t agree with. It’s not speaking up when you have an opinion, or something is upsetting.

-You sometimes dissociate in social situations. This is where you disconnect emotionally. This can show up as daydreaming, spacing out, withdrawing, or even “going blank”. I’ve heard many adult survivors say that they have been accused by partners, colleagues, and family members of not paying attention or not caring.

-You may feel numb, even cauterized. During the pandemic, I have heard numerous trauma survivors say that they do not feel any significant fear or concern. They may actually function more calmly than others who have not experienced a history of trauma.

Overall, this limited list of behaviors I have observed over the years in clinical work has one thing in common: an inability to fully experience the range of feelings that make us human. Restricted experiences have consequences for our interpersonal relationships, choices, lifestyles, and longterm mental health.

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