Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults: How to Heal From Old Wounds
If you’ve read my book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, you know that I come from a long line of trauma in my family. My grandmother on my mom’s side survived serious devastation during World War I, as a child in Lebanon. Her instability and volatile emotions in adulthood, the result of unprocessed trauma, contributed to my mom leaving home at only 16 years old. Grandma’s husband, meanwhile, was a closet drinker who became a quadriplegic in a tragic car accident when he was 55.
Unfortunately, the trauma didn’t end with their generation. One of my uncles was addicted to drugs, and another uncle was murdered. But my mom, who wanted her family to have better choices and chances in life, was determined to carve out a different path for us.
As difficult as it was, I have learned to see my family’s past, and my personal trauma, as not all negative. It has even offered a few blessings. For example, I know that my mom’s persistence and determination in the face of such setbacks gave me my trademark grit and will to succeed. Developing those characteristics was crucial for overcoming my own major challenges in adulthood, like being diagnosed with thyroid cancer while still in my 20s.
I also learned from my family’s and my own experiences that our trauma can hold us back. We can get stuck in a cycle of pain that harms us and the people we love. That was certainly the case with many previous generations, who were not given the opportunity to heal from their tragic past experiences. But tough breaks and serious difficulties can motivate us, making us stronger for whatever comes our way in life. That’s why it’s so important to work through those old wounds and start on the road to recovery.
Signs of Emotional Trauma in Adults
In decades past, topics like mental health and emotional trauma were considered taboo. The old thinking was along the lines of, “Get over it, suck it up, and move on.” But today we understand that trauma isn’t something to be ignored—it’s something we need to face and work through. That’s because trauma that has been stuffed down or covered up with unhealthy coping strategies will crop up in dangerous, even life-threatening, ways. Here are just a few common side effects of unaddressed emotional trauma:
Addiction. It’s common for those who experience a traumatic event, or a series of them, to self-medicate with drugs (including alcohol) or food, or to escape through other addictions like gambling. But addictions become their own problems—with a long list of new potential traumas that can occur as a result. And the worst part is that substance abuse and other numbing tactics do not help the root issue. They only push it down, and the trauma remains unresolved.
Violence and Anger Issues. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) warns that anger is a common side effect of going through a traumatic event. Anger leads to physical changes in the body, like rapid heartbeat, tightened muscles, adrenaline release, an increase in blood pressure, and faster or erratic breathing. Ongoing anger has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, digestion problems, and headaches. And, if not resolved, anger may open the door to depression, anxiety, risk-taking behaviors, or physical violence.
Anxiety and Panic Attacks. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), those with trauma can experience a spectrum of anxiety symptoms, from an uptick in general worrying to full-blown panic attacks. They may also avoid situations or people that they associate with the trauma. But, just like with substance abuse, avoidance doesn’t address the root of the problem.
Nightmares, Flashbacks, and PTSD. Reliving a traumatic event can retraumatize you all over again. Nightmares lead to additional problems, like not getting enough sleep or experiencing insomnia. And flashbacks can interrupt daily life. Interestingly, PTSD can present itself in opposite ways: Some people experience a dissociated state or numbness. Others may be hyperaroused, feeling jumpy or unable to concentrate.
Depression and Suicidal Thoughts. Studies have shown the links between childhood trauma, emotional trauma, major depressive disorder, and suicide. Depression can make it difficult to function from day to day, and the devastating effects of suicide reach far beyond the victim.
Hormonal Issues. It’s a little-known fact that trauma can mess with your hormones. And that can lead to all kinds of symptoms, from anxiety and depression to fatigue and a compromised immune system. Traumatic events release stress hormones like cortisol, and when trauma repeats itself—such as with abusive parents, domestic violence, or PTSD—they keep being released. This can lead to physical symptoms, like chronic fatigue syndrome or heightened susceptibility to colds and COVID-19. Many people never make the connection between their physical symptoms and their past trauma.
How to Heal Emotional Trauma
Some people go through trauma and heal without intervention, while others are scarred and have trouble moving forward. The ADAA notes that various risk factors may increase the likelihood of post-trauma effects. These risk factors include being female, having a lower IQ, having been previously exposed to trauma, having a prior mental health condition, genetics, and certain personality traits.
Regardless, everyone experiences some kind of trauma from their lives or upbringing. What happened may have been beyond our control, but we are able to take responsibility for our healing. Here are some ways we can start the process:
1. Get Help
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Depending on your situation, you may need medical intervention, such as rehabilitation to treat an addiction. You may benefit from group therapy or joining a support group. Or, you may want to talk to a mental health professional, therapist, or counseling hotline. Whatever you do, you don’t have to suffer alone. It’s immensely healing to seek help and connect with other people who have gone through whatever you’re dealing with.
2. Boost Your Brain Health
Did you know trauma actually rewires your brain? The amygdala, or the “emotional brain,” kicks in our fight-or-flight response in fearful situations. It overrides the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our sound decision-making. So, when our brains store a traumatic memory, it’s easy for our brain and emotions to get hijacked when triggered again—even if we aren’t in grave danger. Work to heal your brain with soothing habits such as prayer, meditation, and deep breathing. You may also take supplements for mood support and calming effects. And make sure to care for your brain and body with a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet and regular exercise.
3. Tell Your Story
I have to admit, it was scary at first to talk about my past traumas and family history. But, even if you need to wait until after you’ve had some time to heal yourself, you’ll find it beneficial to share your story. You’ll help countless others who have been in your shoes, and you’ll remove some secrecy, shame, and pain around what happened. It’s been a crucial step in healing for me. As they say, sorrow shared is sorrow halved.
Changing Your Trauma Story
It’s true that trauma can have long-lasting, even lifelong, effects. In the past, I believed this was simply my fate—that I had been negatively affected by trauma throughout my life and always would be. I felt shame, regret, and maybe even a little bit helpless at times. But I learned that I don’t have to be a victim of my past. I was able to come to terms with my most troubling events, work through my feelings around them, care for my body through healthy lifestyle choices, and emerge stronger than ever before. In my work, I’ve seen countless people do the same. Don’t be afraid to take back control over your circumstances and rewrite your own story.
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