How do I know that I’m suffering from the sequelae of a traumatic event?

Trauma happens. It happens in everyday life. If not discharged properly it sleeps in our bodies and in our souls. When it sleeps, it morphs and over time the symptoms of which become far removed from the trauma of origin, so much so we might not identify the connection. Without that connection, symptoms cannot truly resolve.

That is the course of the aftermath of a traumatic moment or event.

If you agree that we are comprised of energy and matter, then you will understand that trauma is in our bodies and in our souls.

How does trauma create symptoms?

When trauma occurs, we fight, flight or freeze. With the first two, we become mobilized — that is, we move into some engagement of the energy. Neither is great, but nor is the danger, but both are better than the last. The latter choice of the three is the most dangerous of responses because it is there that the energy in the moment becomes trapped. As we freeze so does our energy.

Energy is finite to some degree. The inability of our nervous systems to discharge the energy created by the traumatic reaction is what leads to traumatic symptoms — this occurs when the experience is too intense or too long. When our system is able to discharge the energy, fight or flight, we move back to equilibrium; when we don’t the energy stays in our bodies and needs some place to go. With the freeze response, we become immobilized and are unable to discharge.

When the organism remains activated due to overwhelming and continued danger or even the inability to slow it down, it is hard to deactivate. Our body becomes stimulated and the feedback loop is hard to break free from. When unable to discharge, the organism compensates for the aroused state and a chain reaction helps organize and bind the energy into symptoms.

Whether or not we develop symptoms is a function of both the intensity and the consistency of the trauma. It is also a function of our ego strength (our ‘emotional constitution’) and personal resources, and the support with which we feel from our attachment environment (that is, to whom we can turn and feel safe) as well as lingering differences we may experience compared to pre-trauma functioning, that is how much we are reminded of the trauma. (i.e., the loss of a limb).

There is a pattern to the symptoms. Some symptoms begin immediately; some are delayed and some can surface years later. Some symptoms can occur at any time and some are more specific happening early or later. Peter Levine (Somatic Experiencing) identifies the four early normal core reactions to or states of trauma as hyperarousal, constriction, helplessness and dissociation (denial).

Delayed responses might include, but are not limited to, hypervigilance, abrupt and exaggerated emotional responses and startle response, nightmares, hyperactivity and reduced tolerance for stress and frustration. Even later, without treatment, resolution and/or discharge, there may be a deterioration into anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias as well as sleep difficulties. Now the system cannot settle and pervasive anxiety abounds. Even longer term symptoms might include more chronic behavioral changes and the inability to connect such as commitment issues, shyness, chronic fatigue and immune issues, psychosomatic issues, head, neck and back pain, depression, detachment, alienation and isolation, fear of dying, amnesia and forgetfulness and ultimately avoidance. As time progresses symptoms wax and wane, they remit and reappear; they also worsen. With time, there becomes more space between symptom formation and the original trauma — there is less connection and the ability to understand the relationship becomes more challenging and only effectively done by a qualified professional. These symptoms can be consistent, come and go and grow complex, becoming less connected with the original trauma experience. In the end, most often avoidance symptoms arise and seem less connected to the original trauma experience making it harder to isolate, diagnose and treat. That is, without a qualified professional who has a background in trauma etiology and treatment.

That our trauma gets bound up on our neural networks and is discharged through symptoms, if not discharged prior, is not new. The research to back this is as is the wonderful work by Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine and Pat Ogden and others who have their roots in emotions, neurology and body/mind connections.

Earlier, in 1979, Louise Hay published How to Heal Your Body, a work connecting emotional and spiritual (aka energetic) states to the development of physical symptomatology. She correlated ‘dis-ease’ to unhealthy levels of stress and disruptions in emotional and cognitive functioning. She was a thought leader.

Outside of the libidinal nature of energy, Sigmund Freud said the same thing. Even babies have trauma; they lose their bottles, diapers and cribs. If everything goes smoothly the energy is discharged slowly and no symptoms develop. If not, there may be symptom formation then or it may show itself later in life. I’m not so sure it’s all sexual but the concept of symptom formation has been long developed and as humans we recreate that which over we had no control. Freud said “it astonishes us far too little“, referring to repetition-compulsion (now “trauma repetition”).

There is a way out of the cycle of trauma. With mobilization, which also occurs in trauma therapy, we are able to discharge the stored trauma. In some ways not much has happened since Freud and Hay, although we have a better understanding, research to substantiate their offerings and some newer and more efficient treatments.