We continue our conversation from a previous episode about trauma response, this time answering a listeners question. We dive deeper into this important mental health topic, which we all need to understand during a period of time when we need to manage our emotions and choose how we respond to stressful conditions.
TRANSCRIPT: Knowing Your Trauma Response (Continued)
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. What a week it has been, and it is only Tuesday. I spent most of yesterday, which is when I usually record or sometime over the weekend, I spent most of yesterday dealing with one technology issue or another, and I think I’ve said this before on the podcast—me and technology are really not good friends, and so that was a horrible day, and then I woke up today to come to the office and deal with a different technology issue plus a continuing technology issue. So I’m a little bit late getting this episode out and released, but I wanted to address a question that had come in.
So a couple of episodes ago, maybe just a few episodes ago, I had talked about a trauma response that I personally had had that was not a common one for me, and I hadn’t had it in I don’t know how long, and so I got an email after that podcast released from a listener who just asked if I would talk a little bit more about trauma responses and asked if there was like a certain kind of list or like what exactly are trauma responses. So I wanted to address that question and put out another podcast episode on trauma responses.
Now I will say there’s not a list of trauma responses that you can have. I think this is because how trauma interacts with your personality and your temperament and what the story is and what was the story of your trauma, it can be personal and it can be unique in ways that you respond to trauma when it gets triggered again.
I kind of made a list of things that maybe came to the top of my mind as I was thinking about this question from this listener, but I want to add that my list is in no way exhaustive. I could not have covered all of the possible ways that trauma responses show up. So I think it’s something to be aware of. I’m guessing that this listener maybe heard me talk about that and started to ask themselves some questions about maybe some of their behaviors and what’s going on for them in terms of trauma responses, and so if you think that maybe one of your reactions or maybe some feedback people give you about your reactions could be linked to a trauma response, I’d probably get curious about that. Don’t go into shaming, but get curious about that and start to see where that takes you.
Again if you’re working with a therapist, that’d be great to bring up with your therapist, and if you’re not working with a therapist, it still may be good to get into therapy and work out some of these issues with a therapist. I often say when we’re dealing with trauma, it’s best not to go into that territory on our own. I think one of the traumatizing things that happens is that we feel this isolation or we feel like we’re on our own.
We know that even in certain families, I would say in my family, there’s six kids. I would say all of us had somewhat of a different experience, which in its own way makes us feel kind of on our own in dealing with it. Like my siblings who lived in the same house as me who may have like two years in age difference, four years in age difference, maybe more, their experience or their memories are slightly different than mine. I’ve talked with several of my siblings kind of about our childhood, and again being towards the oldest, I’m the second, that’s a different experience than maybe my youngest sibling had as I’ve talked with him about some things, and a lot of my siblings don’t have a lot of great memories or one of my siblings had just mentioned some of them are just starting to resurface again.
So that in and of itself can make us feel like we’re on our own. Maybe we’re talking to a sibling who has memories and we don’t. Again, trauma response may be like what’s wrong with me? Why don’t I have those memories? Maybe you have memories and you’re talking to a sibling that doesn’t have those memories, and it can still play out the same way. What’s wrong with you? Why do you have those memories? What’s that about? So one of the collateral damages of trauma is that we feel kind of isolated or like we’re on our own or other people who maybe had experienced similar things aren’t in the same boat that we are.
So a trauma response, obviously it was response that helped us survive when we were children, when we were young. Oftentimes childhood trauma, I don’t know that we have… I mean I’ve never seen anything that explains why maybe one sibling in a family responds a certain way, and that’s different from another sibling. I would think that maybe personality, perhaps birth order, temperament, different things like that are going to play into how you engage with the trauma and how you respond to that trauma, but I’ve never seen anything that says A + B = C, something that concrete or that simplistic.
So there’s still some things that we don’t understand about why this child responds this way and another child responds a different way or doesn’t remember and this child does remember. I think there’s a lot of complicated factors going on there.
Now we know that some common, I’ll just say maybe some of the common things that came to my mind as I was making a list about different trauma responses that happened, I think extreme independence can be a trauma response, and that may be one that person in adulthood doesn’t even necessarily recognize. We live here in the states in western civilization, western cultures. We live in kind of this culture or this society that puts a preference and puts kind of an importance on the individual and the strength of the individual vs. maybe other cultures and other countries that emphasize kind of the group as the whole as the important part vs. the individual.
So living in a society that puts priority on the individual, that independence and being able to do for yourself is really going to be hailed as a positive thing in our culture, and so the person who is extremely independent may not even put together the fact that this is a trauma response and that they are unable to accept help from other people or to depend on or to rely on other people or to really be relational.
Another trauma response that I think is common as I talk to people in the groups that we run here or weekend intensives that we’ve done is this trauma response which makes a person want less and need less because they needed certain things as a child and they wanted certain things as a child, and not getting those things was not just disappointing. I think the way that a dependent child’s nervous system registers that letdown and registers that disappointment is much more than just disappointment. It’s going to register it more on a level of threat and danger than it is as oh darn, I didn’t get what I wanted.
Again we’re not talking about… I mean we may be talking about some wants in terms of a baseball bat that you really wanted or a skateboard that you really wanted. We may be talking about that, but that also goes to a deeper level of safety for that child in how safe am I and do the people care about not just my needs. I think sometimes we talk about in our culture how needs are important but wants are just greedy or selfish, so I think wants show a different thing. They kind of show the preciousness that you are or the importance that you hold, not just that your parent has this duty to provide food and clothing and a roof over your head, but that they also care about your dreams and they care about your hopes and they care about your wants. So I think being wantless and needless also shows up in adulthood, and that can be traced back to some type of trauma in childhood.
We also know that sometimes extremely driven people or extremely successful people can also have trauma in their childhood. Now I’m not saying that every successful person that you can think of has a traumatic childhood. I don’t know that much about every successful person’s childhood, but we do know that workaholism or this drive to be successful can be behind this trauma story… or not behind, it can be in origin of this trauma story and how this person responds.. again, it can go into this extreme independence. The more successful I am, the less I’m going to need to be dependent on anybody. The more I can take care of my own wants and needs.
Again I see this with a lot of the clients that I work with. They’re not going to make it into some magazine. The general U.S. population isn’t going to know about them, but they are quite successful, and they are very driven. They also usually have some needless / wantless personality traits, and they’re extremely independent and they don’t ask for help. They don’t let people do for them because that has never been safe. What they learned is I can’t rely on other people and I can’t trust other people.
That leads me into the next item on my list that I have come up with, which is not being trusting. I have a very difficult time trusting other people. Well that’s a trauma response, and that usually says when I was young and impressionable and developing some default responses and some default beliefs about the world that I live in and my place in the world and how all of this fits together and works, what I learned is I can’t rely on other people, and so that’s my default setting and I go through life not really trusting people.
Now maybe you’ve heard of the self-fulfilling prophesy where when I can’t trust people, I also look for areas where they let me down or where they aren’t trustworthy, and again this may not be that significant. Sometimes I have to talk with clients about the fact that human beings are imperfect, and so if I’m living with this belief that says people are going to let me down and then I’m looking for all of these instances of where they actually let me down instead of encoding that or interpreting that as they’re imperfect and this is something we can work through and that working through something actually develops trust, then I’m going to be getting that wrong and I’m going to pass by a lot of relationships that if I were to stick around and actually work through something, I may learn that I can have a lot of trust in this person because the trust has been tested.
Now again that doesn’t mean that this person is going to be perfect. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be misunderstandings or miscommunications. What it simply means is we can work through this, and if I find somebody in my life that will work through things with me and will come back and clarify and share with me and get vulnerable and authentic about what’s going on for them, that’s somebody that’s going to gain trust points with me.
On the other side of that, we can also be too trusting. We may have learned that it wasn’t safe for us to second-guess or it wasn’t safe for us to question. Maybe it wasn’t safe for us to register in our gut that what this person that we were dependent on was saying wasn’t real or wasn’t true, and so we didn’t develop maybe some healthy skepticism or a sense of deceit, and so I am overly trusting and I trust people who I shouldn’t trust, and maybe I share more information than I should give to the average person that I encounter.
So trust can be kind of hard on either side where I’m too trusting, but I can also be not trusting enough, and we’re kind of trying to find a balance, and with the clients I work with, I’m always trying to get them to say, what is it about this person that makes you trust them? There needs to be something that we can point a finger on, not just a feeling, but usually it’s an event that happened with this person or something that they said, or maybe like I said they circled back or said I need to clarify. I may have misunderstood what you said, or I think you’re misunderstanding me. What you’re saying isn’t what I’m intending to say, so can we pause and take a timeout and talk about this? Again there needs to be something that says I can trust this person.
Another trauma response would be being avoidant. We probably learned this, I’ve talked before in ACOA, the 12-step fellowship that focuses on family dysfunction. In ACOA they kind of talk about the rules of family dysfunction, and if you grew up in a home that was dysfunctional, some of the rules, usually unspoken but sometimes spoken in varying ways, maybe not these exact words, but it’s this don’t trust, don’t feel, and don’t talk, so again if I haven’t learned that I can talk to people, if I haven’t learned that I can trust people, if I haven’t learned that I can see what I’m seeing and know what that is, then I’m going to be avoidant of a lot of things. I’m going to start moving in one direction, see something that I don’t know what to do with, so whoops, can’t see that! Turn the other direction.
In being avoidant, I kind of box myself in in some ways because if we’re in relationships with people, if we have interactions with people, we’re going to start to see things about them, and if that hasn’t been safe for us to see things or know things or ask things or talk about things or get curious about things, then we have to keep avoiding, and that takes a lot of energy to avoid that much when our brain is actually capable of taking in a lot of information. So if I have to counteract the information that my brain is taking in, that can be an exhaustive thing, and I don’t have a lot of energy leftover for me or the relationships that I’m a part of in my life.
Another trauma response may be a lot of chaos. So sometimes I will tell clients like chaos begets chaos. If we grow up in a lot of chaos, that kind of becomes our default setting, and if things are calm for a while, if things tend to go smooth, then we get worried because it feels like the shoe’s gonna drop. It feels like the dam’s gonna break. It feels like something bad is going to happen, and so we may create our own kind of chaos in order to kind of get rid of that feeling of smoothness.
We also may not really realize how much chaos we actually live in. I sometimes will say to clients when they come in and they’re talking to me about their week’s events or things that are going on in their life, I may say to them, I don’t think you’re aware of the level of chaos that you live with on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, and that’s not a normal status quo for a lot of people.
So again if there’s a lot of chaos, sometimes you may have a childhood that is not necessarily chaotic. It may have been the absence. There may not have been a lot happening. There was a lot of disengagement from parents and family members, and so home felt very empty, and home felt very cold, and so you may think that chaos is a lot of feeling. It’s a lot of excitement. It’s a lot of intensity, and so that feels much better than emptiness, than nothing, but then you don’t get accustomed to how much chaos there actually is and that chaos actually isn’t healthy either. It’s just the opposite of the spectrum from empty and nothing.
I’ve also talked with clients a lot, and they will start to identify what maybe I term or what they’ve termed “false starts.” So clients may say I get started on a lot of projects, and then I don’t finish them, or I don’t complete them, or I forget about them, or they lose interest for me. So that’s good for me to know as a therapist if this client is saying they have a history of false starts because therapy may be an opportunity for them to repeat that.
I start to get into therapy… and I’ve said before sometimes what brings us into therapy is usually not the whole of what we’re going to encounter in therapy. So I may schedule a therapy appointment thinking I need help on this particular problem, and three, four, five, six months in, I’m realizing that the problem is much bigger than when I showed up for that first therapy appointment, and that feels overwhelming, and so I bail. I quit therapy, and I might find a reason why that makes sense to quit therapy, but I don’t know ho to see it through.
I think often that happens, these false starts where I start down this road and when I think of it, I think of, I picture this kid who they’re starting kindergarten and some traumatic event happened in their family and they got bumped out of focusing on kindergarten, so maybe their reading skills weren’t developed the way kindergarten and first grade typically happen for kids who aren’t dealing with trauma. Maybe their writing skills got interrupted because again they’re having to focus on something else that just hit their life that is a lot bigger than kindergarten or first grade, and so they’re going down their normal path of life, but they keep getting bumped off-road. They keep going off-roading and they’re not traveling kind of this smooth highway.
So sometimes I will say to clients it may feel like that’s about you. and that actually may be just kind of the pattern of how life has gone, like when I as a child or a teen for example think I’m going to work on this, I’m going to set this goal for myself and this is what I’m going to accomplish, I may be working with this client and they say I never accomplished any of my goals, but when we start talking about things that were happening in their life, it becomes apparent to me, and I want to make it apparent to my client, that this isn’t because they’re not motivated or that they don’t have enough gusto or motivation. It’s about something else came up and kind of sideswiped me, and all of a sudden I was dealing with something else.
So again that’s going to interfere with me moving in the direction I want to go or going down this smooth road, and instead I keep getting bumped off the road. I keep landing in a ditch. I keep getting knocked into the weeds, and I think that’s my fault, and it’s not, which again is a trauma response to think this is about me and if I just did A, B, C, and D, things would work out well and not take into account the other factors that my brain and my nervous system are having to deal with.
It’s extremely common for trauma survivors to feel as though they’re behind in life, and maybe they actually are behind other people in their age group. This can be especially common for those who survived childhood and adolescent trauma where so much developing is happening in the brain. Maybe the people in your age group who didn’t experience these life-altering traumas, absolutely they have an advantage over you. We know this. For people who experience childhood and adolescent trauma, their brain has to focus on survival instead of being free to grow and develop, so they may feel behind. Oftentimes they get hard on themselves and start to shame themselves when the reality is they were doing the best that they could to survive.
So for a lot of clients you might still be learning how to thrive in your relationships with others. You might still be working on how does it feel to be a functional adult? You might still be learning how to hold a steady job. You might still be learning how to work through conflict or problem-solve. You may still be learning how to best care for yourself. One of the things I say to clients is it’s okay. If you’re behind, we’ll catch you up in therapy. You need to honor where you are now instead of focusing on the fact that you’re behind people who didn’t have the same struggles, challenges, and traumas that you did.
Another example of a trauma response is expecting the worst. Sometimes I’ll hear clients say I’m just waiting for the shoe to drop. They’re expecting a no when maybe life is handing them yeses, and they don’t know how to accept a yes. That wasn’t something they got. Instead what they got were obstacles and barriers and nos, and so that’s something that they have learned to start to expect. I expect things not to go my way. I expect not to get a promotion. I expect not to get the girl or the guy or the relationship that I’m looking for. Again those can also be trauma responses.
The last one that I’m going to hit on, and again I’m going to want to repeat that this list that I’ve kind of come up with for this podcast is in no way exhaustive. There can be… the podcast that I talked about that generated this question, I was simply talking about like biological trauma responses, this racing heartbeat, my heartbeat pounding in my chest and my head. I’m sure my pupils were dilated. I didn’t go look in the mirror. I was shaking. I was literally shaking. I couldn’t sit down anymore. I had to get up, and I had to move. So again, there can be those trauma responses.
I mentioned in that podcast that that’s not a typical trauma response for me. A much more typical trauma response for me is to take a big step back and to get extremely observant. I pay attention to detail. Again this isn’t necessarily a choice that I do, but I start to become aware of varied details of what’s happening, and in some ways for me it feels like things slow down as I’m watching everything, so I think for me, how I kind of describe that is I need to observe the chaos because again, in the chaos there’s some danger that’s happening there, so I need to get outside of the chaos. I need to observe the chaos.
For me, another trauma response is I need to gain knowledge. Knowledge is my way out, and that was true of me for a kid. I wanted to figure out how things worked. If I heard like a phrase, a common literary phrase that people use, not necessarily in reference to the book that it comes from, but just kind of like a life lesson, I’m not thinking of one right now, I needed to know what that meant because I would hear it used once, twice, three times. Okay, I’ve got to know what that means. I can’t be out of the know because that means I’m not safe, which also makes sense with the role that I played in my family. I was very much a caretaker, and so it’s helpful to be a caretaker if you know what’s happening.
So again when I feel kind of that… I don’t know how else to describe it. I feel internally. I don’t know if I physically withdraw or distance, but I get silent. I don’t really talk. I feel like I’m kind of recording some things. I wish I had photographic memory. I don’t have that. But I become very tuned-in to what’s being said, what movements are happening, who’s doing what, so I really pay attention to detail, and that’s another trauma response for me, and then just kind of this wanting to learn and wanting to know. I need to be in the know.
I’ve mentioned before recently that I’m trying to kind of step back from watching the news or being on social media so much, and again that’s hard when you have kind of this fear of missing out, not to be popular or care about how many likes I get on any certain social media post. It’s not that for me. It’s like what if something happens and I don’t know? Now logically, I can say I’m going to know. I talk to people. People will mention it. I will know if something major happens that I need to know, but I’m not talking just about major things. I’m talking about the little things, the things that I pay attention to, the things that I notice that then help me predict what’s going to happen.
Now again it’s not like I have some magic ball. I remember when I was in grad school, I was talking to my husband. We were driving somewhere, and I was saying to him a lot of my trauma I have digestive issues, so I would get this pain in my stomach, and I was having it on this particular drive, and I was just l like oh my stomach’s hurting, it’s kind of crampy, and I wasn’t going to start my period or anything like that, but I was just like ugh, I don’t feel good. I was aware enough and I said to my husband usually when this happens something bad is around the corner.
Thankfully, I have the husband that I have, and he kind of looked at me. He wasn’t… he didn’t degrade me or be like, “You’re ridiculous,” but he just kind of looked at me and was like, “Really? You think that’s an indication? You think you’re clairvoyant or something?” And I was like, “No, not that. I just feel like something’s gonna happen, and it registers in my body.” He didn’t say much, but I kind of paid attention and was like, oh nothing happened. Well that’s weird. So we kind of talked about this throughout the first couple of years of our marriage, and I would mention this like something bad is gonna happen. Most of the time, nothing bad happened.
One time we were having a discussion about this, and my husband said to me, “I think that was how it felt growing up in your house. I think your stomach and your body was registering that there is going to be an argument or something bad, and those things did happen in your family, and they happened on a fairly regular basis, but they’re not happening anymore.” And I was like, oh right. Yes, I do think that’s true. So again there can be biological things that our body responds to. We can have biological trauma responses, but then we can also have more of what I call like belief-driven trauma responses or behavior-driven trauma responses.
So one of the things that I’ll talk about with clients is the difference between this doing value vs. being value. So often we know that there’s some good research that has been done and that is continuing to be done about this connection between mothers and infants, even in utero while this baby is developing and how this child, this developing baby, starts to feel based on what’s going on with the mom. They’re literally part of her body, so they can register stress. They can register fear. They can register nothingness, which would be depression.
So they can register these things, and then after the child’s born, of course what does that connection look like between the mother and that infant? Again before… I’m a mom, I say this a lot, before we start to blame moms, we have to recognize that our culture and our society gives lip service to the value of motherhood, but we do not put money where our mouth is, and so the resources offered to mothers is severely lacking compared to the job they have to do.
We also need to start saying, okay maybe the mom is growing and developing this baby and birthing this baby if the baby isn’t place for adoption, but dads can also have a role, and we’re starting to I think more and more fathers, young fathers are starting to ask for paternal care to have time off when the baby is born so they can also be part of that process, so that it’s not just all handed to the mom with verry little resources, but the dads can start to participate in this.
So this connection at that point… for an infant, they can’t do anything. They have no doing value. We don’t know if they’re going to be successful. We don’t know if they’re going to get good grades on their report card. We don’t know if they’re going to be popular. We don’t know if they’re going to behave. We don’t know if they’re going to be athletic. We know nothing about this child, and yet we love them, and hopefully we’re connecting to them and we’re taking the time to gaze at this child. We’re taking the time, and again some of this may play into some privilege, and if parents are having to work 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet, they are not going to be able to take the time to sit down with this child, make eye contact, and coo with this child and just gaze at this child.
All of this is developing being value, that you have value simply for being, and often when that was missed for one reason or another, as we start to grow older, we also recognize that we can have doing value, and so we will do and do and do and do, and we can be like hamsters on a wheel just doing, doing, doing, doing, and we still don’t feel the value, and I often say that’s because we need to balance between doing value and being value.
If I were, at my age of 50, if I were just to be like well I have being value, so I don’t really need to do anything, that’s going to be a problem. I need to be also doing things. I need to start with this basis that I have value as a human being. Period. Regardless of whether I do anything or not, and what I find a lot of times with people is when they know that they have that value, they want to do things. They want to see how big can I be? How successful can I be? How creative can I be? How artistic can I be? Whatever their passion is, whatever their strengths and talents are, they want to do something with that, and they’re safe to do something with that.
Likewise if I only have doing value and no being value, that’s an exhaustive process on my nervous system, and I don’t know how to relax, and I don’t know how to chill out, and I don’t know how to unwind because all of my value is caught up in doing, doing, doing, and as soon as I stop, my value starts to slow down and decrease.
So again I think a lot of times one of our trauma responses is this doing value vs. being value, and if I’m trying to do things for my doing value because I don’t know that I have being value and the doing doesn’t work out, which sometimes that happens, and sometimes that’s life, and sometimes that’s privilege and underprivilege, and if I’m trying to do to make up for the lack of being value, then it’s going to be really hard for me when I don’t have complete control over that. So maybe I do become extremely independent. Maybe I become extremely driven and failure is not an option. Maybe it’s easier to be needless and wantless. Maybe it’s easy to be too trusting or not trusting enough, to be avoidant, to create chaos, and to expect the worst.
So again wherever you are, just start to recognize if you have some people that you trust in your life, start to ask them for some feedback about possibly what these trauma responses can be and how they feel them show up because I guarantee you… you don’t have to be super close to people, but if you’re close enough, if they see you often enough and they pay attention, they’ll start to notice patterns. Be where you are, honor where you are, and start growing and developing from there, and again like I said, it’s always helpful if we have a fair witness and a support person to go with us on our journey.