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Unveiling the Impact of Trauma: 23 Unexpected Ways It Shapes Your Life

You might be wondering if your past is still affecting you today. The answer is always "yes," but to what extent?

If you live in a traumatized state, you might be surprised at how your past experiences still shape who you are today and how you experience your daily life.

And is it possible to overcome trauma? I think so. I'm a therapist and coach that specializes in trauma recovery. My clients make significant changes, including recovering from their traumatized state. And I also regularly hear from my audience about how their life has changed from my free content.

I can't make guarantees for you, but I think that trauma can generally be overcome to live a life of more hope, confidence, and connection. I'll provide some next steps for your trauma recovery at the end of this blog.



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What is trauma?

Trauma is typically defined as an experience that overwhelms a person's ability to cope, leaving them feeling helpless, powerless, and vulnerable. It can be a single event or a series of events that cause significant distress.

But we can take our understanding of trauma one step further.

Trauma is not an event that someone went through (like an assault) or events that should have happened that didn't happen (healthy attachment with a caregiver). Instead, it is the impact of those on that person. More specifically, how the event impacts the state of their autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS can be in one of 3 basic states:

  • social engagement

  • flight/fight mobility

  • shutdown immobility

According to the revolutionary neuroscience of the Polyvagal Theory, trauma is the inability to shift out of a defensive state and into the body's state of safety and social connection. Someone who is traumatized lives in a perpetual state of defense or is easily triggered into that state of defense by things that are reminders of what they went through.


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Importance of Addressing Trauma

Since a traumatized individual is existing in a defensive state, their basic daily functioning may negatively change in numerous domains:

  • emotional

  • cognitive

  • physical

  • behavioral

Ignoring trauma can lead to long-term negative consequences. It can affect a person's ability to function in daily life and lead to a host of physical and mental health problems.

This article explores 23 surprising ways trauma can impact your life and provides tips on overcoming them.


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6 Emotional Impacts of Trauma

Here are six emotional impacts of trauma that you may be experiencing. This list is not exhaustive:


1. Anxiety

Trauma can lead to feelings of anxiety that can range from mild to severe. "Individuals who have experienced trauma may experience anxiety in a variety of forms from an increase in generalized worries to panic attacks" (ADAA). Other common anxious experiences may be constantly on edge, worrying excessively, and having trouble sleeping.

If the Polyvagal perspective is true and trauma is the impact of an event on one's ANS, then anxiety would make sense as one being stuck in a defensive state of flight. This person is prepared for mobility, to escape danger, and get to safety. However, they are stuck in this state. Therefore, they experience anxiety chronically.

If you struggle with anxiety management, I wrote a mega blog of 21 ways to reduce your anxiety ranked by difficulty.


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2. Depression

A traumatized state can also lead to depression. People stuck in trauma commonly feel sad and hopeless and lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. They may also experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. In adults with chronic depression, there is a strong history of childhood trauma -

75.6% of the chronically depressed patients reported clinically significant histories of childhood trauma. 37% of the chronically depressed patients reported multiple childhood traumatization. Experiences of multiple trauma also led to significantly more severe depressive symptoms. (NIH)

From the Polyvagal Theory lens, depression again makes sense. If an autonomic nervous system is stuck in a state of shutdown immobilization, the person will experience depression. The body is in a state of conservation. It is biologically slowing down in an attempt to appear dead in a life-threatening situation.

This podcast episode creates a clear link between the Polyvagal Theory and depression.


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3. Anger

Trauma can also lead to chronic anger and rage. In this case, the body is stuck in a Polyvagal state of fight. It is prepared to be aggressive and enclose space. Doing so against a danger may cause the danger to back up, creating enough space for the aggressor to flee the situation. However, one can get stuck in fight and feel chronically angry.

The overall prevalence of inappropriate, intense, or poorly controlled anger in the U.S. population was 7.8%. Anger was especially common among men and younger adults, and was associated with decreased psychosocial functioning. Significant and positive associations were evident between anger and parental factors, childhood, and adulthood adverse events. (NIH)

To reduce anger, check out this blog article that describes what anger is and how to reduce it emotionally and cognitively.


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4. Fear

Trauma can leave a person constantly feeling on guard and fearful. They may be afraid of the same situation happening again, and this fear can be debilitating. In the video below, I share a story about a police officer who felt fear while sitting in his squad car and explain why.

Fear is the conscious experience of being unable to act on one's sympathetic flight/fight energy. In trauma, this activation is often frozen into the system through forced immobilization. If so, the flight/fight activation may stay locked in the body for years.

The frozen flight/fight is easily triggered through cues similar to the situation that traumatized the individual. For example, when someone unexpectedly hugs a sexual assault survivor, their frozen flight/fight energy may trigger, and they may enter into a rage or a panic.



5. Guilt

People who live in trauma may feel guilty, which I have always found peculiar. But it's complex.

Guilt suggests wrongdoing. In my work with traumatized individuals, they are not at fault for what got them into a traumatized state.

Oftentimes, they may feel that they could have done something differently to prevent the trauma from happening. Or they may have been manipulated into thinking they were willingly partaking in something. Or, after the truth came out, the person may have been taught that they were the cause of something, like a family friend going to prison.

None of these should result in one feeling guilty. However, these are often imposed upon a child. And children tend to blame themselves and take on the emotions of others.

Since a child's psyche is still developing, they tend to see the world revolving around them. This means that if there's something wrong, they tend to think it's somehow related to them, that perhaps it's their fault. (PsychCentral)

This meta-analysis found that "...guilt predicts PTSD when assessed both within days and after several months following the traumatic event, [suggesting] that guilt plays a significant role in the onset and maintenance of PTSD." The analysis suggests that guilt is instrumental in continuing one's traumatic state.

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6. Shame

Like guilt, shame is a common experience of those living with trauma.

I see that my clients often confuse shame and guilt. Guilt is the experience of doing something wrong in your behavior or choices. Shame is an experience that you are wrong or broken as a person. Shame often comes with feelings of disgust, grossness, or dirtiness. Shame is very often a result of sexual trauma.

It is possible that certain interpersonal traumas, for example, those occurring early in development or those involving coercive (but not forceful) sexual victimization perpetrated by a known and/or trusted perpetrator, may be more likely to lead to strong emotions of anger and shame as compared with heightened levels of fear that would likely accompany a trauma characterized by acute physical threat. (NIH)

This podcast episode teaches about shame and its connection with the Polyvagal Theory.


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7 Cognitive Impacts of Trauma


Here are seven cognitive impacts of trauma that you may be experiencing. This list is not exhaustive:


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7. Memory Loss

Surviving traumatic incidents often has negative impacts on memory. This includes the memories of the incidents and general memory in daily functioning.

Memory disturbances are predominant in the presentation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are part of the diagnostic criteria.1 The re-experiencing symptom criteria of PTSD include intrusive memories of the traumatic event, and the avoidance symptom criteria include the inability to recall important aspects of the trauma. In addition, patients with PTSD often complain of experiencing everyday memory problems with emotionally neutral material... (NIH)

Memory difficulties cannot be simply assigned to psychological disturbances like "denial," but have biological underpinnings to them.

Memory deficits appear to be most related to abnormalities in the hippocampus and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and the prefrontal cortex and catecholamine system.


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8. Difficulty Concentrating

People who live in trauma may have trouble concentrating on tasks or focusing on what is in front of them. For example, a student who cannot focus on the multiple choice question and instead stares ahead blankly at the screen, thinking of other things.

Patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often describe difficulties with concentration, attention, and memory. Poorer performance on tests of attention, declarative memory, and other cognitive domains attributable to PTSD status have been found... (NIH)

This could be due to existing in a defensive Polyvagal state. One must exist in their body's state of safety and connection to focus, think critically, and retain information. If not, their body is prepared to run, fight or shut down. These defensive states are not conducive to concentration and other brain executive functions.

I collected all of my free content on the safety state in the free Members' Center Safety Learning Hub. This is a great free resource collection to deepen your learning on safety.


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9. Negative Self-Talk is an Impact of Trauma

Trauma can lead to negative self-talk and self-blame. People who have experienced trauma may have thoughts like:

  • "I'm unlovable. Something is wrong with me."

  • “I can't do anything right."

  • "Nothing good will happen for me; why bother trying?"

On top of that, these individuals may have negative projections about their future. Someone living with trauma may expect failure and see no point in putting effort into their recovery or the opportunities they do have. These cognitions would likely come from a Polyvagal shutdown.

One avenue to decrease negative self-talk could be through emotional validation. Doing so may diminish the intensity of the negative cognitions and the negative emotions driving the thoughts.


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10. Flashbacks

Flashbacks are a common symptom of trauma. People who have experienced trauma may feel like they are reliving the traumatic event, even if they are in a safe place.

Flashbacks are not simply a narrative recollection of a past event, but a reliving of it. They are probably connected with the frustrated impulse to run or fight.

This fMRI study found that "...the increased activations in numerous areas of motor cortex suggest that flashbacks are a form of memory that facilitates action on the environment (such as fight or flight)."

This makes sense as the flight/fight sympathetic energy is frozen into the system during acute traumatic incidents. The impulse to run or fight is frozen when immobilized through force or immobilized through a simultaneous dorsal vagal shutdown.


11. Intrusive Thoughts

People who have experienced trauma may have intrusive thoughts - unwanted and distressing thoughts that can be difficult to control. Harvard says, "Whatever the content, it’s often unsettling and may bring on feelings of worry or shame. The more you try to push the thought from your mind, the more it persists."

Examples of intrusive thoughts could be:

  • flashbacks of traumatic events

  • obscene or unwanted sexual thoughts

  • thoughts of harm to self or others

  • obsessions with disease or contamination


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12. Mistrust of others

Living in a traumatized state can negatively impact one's trust in others. This study found that "...higher levels of [childhood maltreatment] were associated with higher levels of distrust..."

Traumatized individuals have less capacity for connection and social engagement if they exist in a defensive state of flight, fight, shutdown, or freeze.

Trust is an experience of vulnerability and connection with another, necessitating some access to one's Polyvagal safety state.

This may also stem from a traumatized individual's decreased ability to identify safety in others. When existing in a defensive state, the person is more likely to identify danger cues.

Of course, safety cues from their past, like gentle touch and eye contact, may have been mixed with traumatic experiences. For example, sexual abuse may be connected with gift-giving and a feeling of connection. This distortion of safety likely will result in the victim's distrust of others later in their life, even when others present with co-regulative safety cues.


13. Mistrust of self

Living in a traumatized state can lead to a profound mistrust of oneself. Those affected may doubt their emotions, thoughts, and decision-making abilities.

The mistrust of self may also be directly connected to the reactions of others. For example, the child that is taught they are making up an abuse story when they report it to a trusted adult.

Likewise, when traumatic memories resurface, the individual may doubt or question how real they were. They may genuinely not know and be confused and mistrusted in what they are potentially recalling.

Trauma disrupts one's connection with their internal experiences (their SSIEC). Emotions become difficult to understand and trust, leaving individuals questioning the validity of their feelings. Intrusive thoughts and distorted memories further erode confidence in their thoughts and perception of reality. Making decisions becomes challenging due to fear and self-doubt, as trauma shatters their sense of safety and confidence.


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5 Physical Impacts of Trauma

Here are five physical impacts of trauma that you may be experiencing. This list is not exhaustive:

14. Sleep Disturbances

Trauma can lead to sleep disturbances, including difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, and waking up frequently at night.

Difficulty falling asleep may be due to being stuck in a defensive state of flight, fight or freeze. All of these defensive states involve some level of mobilization or fear. Immobilizing in stillness is difficult, resulting in laying awake in bed with racing thoughts or nightmares.

Nightmares are common among trauma survivors experiencing PTSD. Between 71 and 96 percent of people living with PTSD have nightmares multiple times per week; when people also have other mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, the likelihood of nightmares increases (National Center for PTSD, 2015). (Healthy Place)

In shutdown, the individual may get too much sleep as they are in a conservation state with little energy.

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15. Chronic Pain

Trauma can lead to chronic pain disorders. I found this fact from the US Dept. of Veteran Affairs interesting -

Approximately 15% to 35% of patients with chronic pain also have PTSD. Only 2% of people who do not have chronic pain have PTSD.

The Polyvagal Theory may provide some insight into pain and trauma. When in danger, the body loses access to its safety state and prepares for mobilization, like running or fighting. However, when this activation continues long-term, there may be negative health-related repercussions, including the experience of pain.

Regarding childhood trauma and pain, "when this response remains highly activated in a child for an extended period of time without the calming influence of a supportive parent or adult figure, toxic stress occurs and can damage crucial neural connections in the developing brain" (Harvard).

To build on this idea, Practical Pain Management says, "Human brains work better when they are allowed to develop in safe and nurturing environments, and human bodies experience less pain when they are allowed to receive input from a healthy brain."


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16. Fatigue

Fatigue is another common symptom experienced by individuals living in trauma. Again, this seems connected to the body's inability to self-regulate from a stuck flight/fight response.

The stress-response system in general, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in particular, may play a role in the association between [Chronic Fatigue Syndrome] and PTSD. Both animal and human studies have shown that traumatic early life stressors may permanently change the stress response system in ways that leave affected individuals more prone to the effects of other stressors and to stress-related disorders. (NIH)

Depression would be connected to the body's dorsal vagal shutdown immobility response. This is a state of conservation, resulting in feeling low motivation, disinterest, and lots of sleep. Chronic fatigue can look like depression. But there are some key differences:

  • Exercise may make chronic fatigue worse, whereas it may improve depression.

  • Chronic fatigue is expressed with intense frustration, depressive fatigue is experienced with anhedonia and low motivation.

  • Chronic fatigue patients report being weaker and with more pain than those with depression.

  • Chronic fatigue patients report sore throat and tender lymph nodes.

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17. Gastrointestinal Issues

Trauma can significantly affect a person's digestive system, leading to stomachaches, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

In PTSD, your body's "fight or flight" response is frequently activated, releasing a substance in the brain called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). Among other things, CRF increases mucus and water secretion in your colon and disrupts colon motility (speed of muscle contraction). It's likely, then, that high levels of CRF contribute to the development of IBS in people with PTSD. (VeryWellMind)

18. Changes in Appetite

Many - if not the majority - of my traumatized therapy clients have reported changes in their appetite. Some report that they don't feel hungry and can go a day or two without eating. Others have told me that they use eating as a means of coping. Though they aren't hungry, it just helps them feel less dysregulated and calm their negative emotional experience, something called a" behavioral adaptation".

The scientific literature provides clear evidence that negative emotions and maladaptive emotion regulation strategies play a role in the onset and maintenance of binge eating... Poor mood appears to precede binge-eating episodes and... binge eating may be an attempt to down-regulate this emotional distress. (Journal of Eating Disorders)

Reductions in appetite may occur in a shutdown state, as the body is in a conservation mode and does not need to take in as many resources.


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5 Behavioral Impacts of Trauma

Here are five behavioral impacts of trauma that you may be experiencing. This list is not exhaustive:

19. Isolation

Experiencing trauma can lead to a tendency to isolate oneself from others.

Isolation can be a symptom of a Polyvagal defensive state. From flight, one needs space and may avoid others. In shutdown, there is usually an impulse to be alone and with lower stimulation. There is less capacity for social engagement in a defensive state, resulting in isolation.

20. Avoidance

Trauma can lead to avoidance behaviors, where individuals avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event. These contexts may trigger the frozen impulse to run or fight from a specific traumatic event.

This impulse may be frozen in the system and not play a significant role in the individual's daily functioning. However, in those certain contexts. it gets triggered. This could leave someone in a crisis, like a panic attack.


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21. Self-Destructive Behaviors

Trauma can lead to self-destructive behaviors, though I argue these may be the individual's best attempts at regulating their traumatized state. No, these behaviors do not improve their lives and will probably result in more problems across their domains.

However, these behaviors probably result in an immediate benefit, like feeling connection, alleviation of numbness, or reduction in emotional dysregulation. Therapy clients commonly report that self-destructive behaviors serve a purpose for them, even though it does not bring about meaningful change or increased happiness.

Self-destructive behaviors may include, but are definitely not limited to:

  • substance abuse

  • self-harm

  • risky sexual behavior

22. Aggression

Experiencing trauma can also lead to increased aggression, either verbally or physically. This could be in a spousal relationship, in a workplace boss to subordinates relationship, or in schoolyard bullying. Each of these dominant individuals might be stuck in their aggressive fight state or an explosive rage from a fight-flavored freeze state.

Perhaps frustratingly, these aggressive behaviors reinforce the aggression, as these behaviors create more problems for the individual. "Following a traumatic experience, some people may engage in aggressive behaviors, which in turn may lead to an increased rate of interpersonal conflicts and even social malfunctioning" (Scientific Reports).




23. Substance Abuse

Substance abuse should be considered a "self-destructive behavior," as in number 21 above. However, it deserves its own space. Drug and alcohol use are common means of "coping" with the dysregulation of trauma. Some facts about PTSD and substance use are:

  • those with PTSD have higher rates of substance use than those without PTSD.

  • those with PTSD were more likely to have an [Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)] or [Non Alcohol Substance Use Disorder (NA-SUD)- than those without PTSD.

  • Endorsement of a greater number of traumas was associated with greater odds of having PTSD, AUD, or NA-SUD.

  • Experience of interpersonal trauma was related to greater odds of having PTSD and subsequent AUD or NA-SUD than not experiencing interpersonal trauma.

  • Multiple experiences of interpersonal trauma compared to one interpersonal trauma exposure also increased the odds of having PTSD followed by AUD or NA-SUD.

My therapy clients with a substance abuse history can consistently connect their use to an attempt to deal with their internal world: emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Substances provide an escape from their pains. They may also provide a pseudo-social context if used with others.


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Overcoming the Impact of Trauma

Trauma does not need to be permanent.

You may have noticed that many (if not all) of these 23 ways trauma can impact you may have something in common. They stem from Polyvagal state dysregulation. The primary factor in all of these is a lack of self-regulation and the inactivation of the safety state.

If trauma is being stuck in a defensive state, then relieving trauma would be getting unstuck from that defensive state. Accessing and maintaining the social engagement system would indicate one is less traumatized or they have even recovered from trauma.

Is it possible generally? Yes.

Is it easy? No.

To recover from trauma, there are three main phases:

  1. Phase 1: Build a new understanding. It helps to learn new pieces of information to help reframe or build a new narrative about yourself. I recommend learning about attachment, family systems, and the Polyvagal Theory. Most people get stuck in this stage, endlessly absorbing new information about trauma and psychological concepts.

  2. Phase 2: Build your safety state. To relieve trauma and get unstuck, you need to access and build the strength of your safety state. This allows more present-moment potential and unlocks self-regulation. This middle phase is essential and constantly neglected in most therapy modalities and psychology models.

  3. Phase 3: Get unstuck through self-regulation. In this step, you purposely allow and experience the stuck defensive state while anchoring in your safety state. Self-regulation occurs as a result. This process may take repeated attempts as the trauma relieves little by little. This step is often rushed into and runs the risk of re-traumatization.

The Polyvagal Trauma Relief System addresses all of these needs.

I created PTRS, a three-phased system that walks you through all three of the pieces above. It teaches you the Polyvagal Theory clearly and simply. It teaches you how to feel and build the strength of your safety state. And finally, it teaches you how to allow your defensive state activation lovingly but then release the trauma.

PTRS is intended to be a comprehensive system. It's jam-packed with all of the trauma-relieving knowledge and practices necessary for self-regulation. In fact, Beth had this to say -

PTRS is based on human biology and is a system that can stand on its own. I've used pieces of other psychological concepts out there, but have never come across one that can stand on its own.


Seek help.

No matter what you decide to do to relieve your trauma, please seek out some help. Help can come in many different ways, like these:

  • therapy or coaching

  • support groups

  • meditation

  • medication


 
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Understand Trauma Deeply

This blog article teaches you deeply about trauma, helping you to lay the foundation for that first phase of trauma recovery: knowledge-building.


 

Q&A


Q: What is the impact of trauma on daily life?

A: Trauma can have significant emotional, cognitive, physical, and behavioral impacts. It can lead to anxiety, depression, memory loss, sleep disturbances, and even physical pain, plus a lot more.


Q: Can trauma be overcome?

A: It's generally possible to overcome trauma with the right strategies and support. This involves understanding the impact of trauma, building the safety state, and learning to self-regulate.


Q: What resources are available for overcoming trauma?

A: Various resources are available, including therapy, support groups, meditation, and medication. The Polyvagal Trauma Relief System (PTRS) is a comprehensive system that can help individuals understand and overcome trauma.


 

Author Bio:

Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.

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3 Comments


I lost two of my son's in terrible ways and it still hurts bad and I keep trying to figure out what I could have done

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laura hoarau
laura hoarau
May 24, 2023

Waw Justin this is one my favorites articles thank you 🥰

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Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT
May 25, 2023
Replying to

So glad you liked it!

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Stuck Not Broken: Book 1 is now available!

 

Learn the Polyvagal Theory clearly and simply. Understand yourself without shame, blame, or judgment.

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