To begin with, it’s important to note that we need to view these common symptoms of trauma for what they truly are. When our bodies are feeling uneasy, they give us messages. The purpose of these messages is to inform us that something inside doesn’t feel right, and it needs our attention. If these messages go unheard, over time they evolve into the symptoms of trauma.
It’s also important to note that not all these symptoms are caused exclusively by trauma, nor has everyone who exhibits one or more of these symptoms been traumatised. The flu, for instance, can cause abdominal discomfort that is similar to trauma symptoms. However, there is a difference: symptoms produced by the flu generally go away in a few days, whereas those produced by trauma do not.
The first symptoms that are likely to develop immediately after an overwhelming event include hyperarousal, constriction, dissociation and denial, as well as feelings of helplessness, immobility, or freezing. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
This may take the form of physical symptoms: increase in heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing (rapid, shallow, panting, etc.), cold sweats, tingling, and muscular tension. It can also manifest as a mental process in the form of increased repetitious thoughts, racing mind, and worry.
If we allow ourselves to acknowledge these thoughts and sensations—letting them have their natural flow—they will peak, then begin to diminish and resolve. As this process occurs, we may experience trembling, shaking, vibrations, waves of warmth, fullness of breath, slowed heart rate, muscle relaxation, and an overall feeling of relief, comfort, and safety.
When we respond to a life-threatening situation, hyperarousal is initially accompanied by constriction in our bodies and a narrowing of perceptions. Our nervous system acts to ensure that all our efforts can be maximally focused on the threat in an optimum way. Constriction alters a person’s breathing, muscle tone, and posture in order to promote efficiency and strength. Blood vessels in the skin, the extremities, and internal organs constrict so that more blood is available to the muscles, which are tensed and prepared to take defensive action. At the same time, the digestive system is inhibited. We may also feel numb and shut down.
Dissociation and Denial:
Dissociation protects us from being overwhelmed by escalating arousal, fear, and pain. It “softens” the pain of severe injury by secreting nature’s internal opium, endorphins.
In trauma, dissociation seems to be a favoured means of enabling a person to endure experiences that at the moment are beyond endurance.
Denial is probably a lower-level energy form of dissociation. The disconnection may occur between the person and the memory or feelings about a particular event (or series of events). We may deny that an event occurred, or we may act as though it was unimportant. For instance, when someone we love dies, or when we are injured or violated, we may act as though nothing has happened, because the emotions that come with truly acknowledging the situation are too painful. In addition, dissociation may be experienced as part of the body being disconnected or almost absent. Frequently, chronic pain represents a part of the body that has been dissociated.
Feelings of Helplessness, Immobility, and Freezing:
If hyperarousal is the nervous system’s accelerator, a sense of overwhelming helplessness is its brake. The helplessness that is experienced at such times is not the ordinary sense of helplessness that can affect anyone from time to time. It is the sense of being collapsed, immobilised, and utterly helpless. It is not a perception, belief, or a trick of the imagination. It is real.
Trauma Symptoms: A Lengthy List
Other early symptoms that begin to show up at the same time or shortly after those listed above can include:
Hypervigilance (being “on guard” at all times)
Intrusive imagery or flashbacks
Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
Exaggerated emotional responses and startled responses
Nightmares and night terrors
Abrupt mood swings (rage reactions or temper tantrums, frequent anger, crying)
Shame and lack of self-worth
Reduced ability to deal with stress (easily and frequently stressed-out)
Several of these symptoms can also show up at a later time, even years later. Remember, this list is not for diagnostic purposes. It is a guide to help you get a feel for how trauma symptoms behave.
The next symptoms that may appear are:
Panic attacks, anxiety, and phobias
Mental “blankness” or spaced-out feelings
Avoidance behaviour (avoiding places, activities, movements, memories, or people)
Attraction to dangerous situations
Addictive behaviours (overeating, drinking, smoking, etc.)
Exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
Amnesia and forgetfulness
Inability to love, nurture, or bond with other individuals
Fear of dying or having a shortened life
Self-mutilation (severe abuse, self-inflicted cutting, etc.)
Loss of sustaining beliefs (spiritual, religious, interpersonal)
The final group of symptoms generally takes longer to develop. In most cases, they may have been preceded by some of the earlier symptoms. However, there is no fixed rule that dictates when and if a symptom will appear.
This group includes:
Diminished emotional responses
Inability to make commitments
Chronic fatigue or very low physical energy
Immune system problems and certain endocrine problems, such as thyroid malfunction and environmental sensitivities
Psychosomatic illnesses, particularly headaches, migraines, neck and back problems
Digestive problems (spastic colon)
Severe premenstrual syndrome
Depression and feelings of impending doom
Feelings of detachment, alienation, and isolation (“living dead” feelings)
Reduced ability to formulate plans
The symptoms of trauma can be stable, meaning ever-present. They can also be unstable, meaning they come and go, and are triggered by stress. Or they can remain hidden for decades and suddenly surface. Usually symptoms do not occur individually, but come in groups. They often grow increasingly complex over time, becoming less and less connected with the original trauma experience.
Symptoms Deliver a Message
It is important to understand that any or all of these symptoms can appear no matter what kind of event caused the trauma, and they can and will disappear when the trauma is healed. In order to heal trauma, we need to learn to trust the messages our bodies are giving us. Consider the symptoms of trauma as internal wake-up calls. If we learn how to listen to these calls, how to increase the awareness of our bodies, and finally how to use these messages, we can begin to heal our traumas.
So if you became upset while reading about any of these symptoms, you can perhaps reframe your reaction and view it as the initial phase in your healing journey. You might be grateful that your body is sending you messages that healing needs to happen.
-Inspired by the work of Peter Levine.