6 Ways Trauma Might Inform Your Current Life

Noel Hunter, PsyD
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An all too common experience of trauma survivors is hearing the suggestion, “Why don’t you just get over it?” The idea is that, well, it happened in the past, so it shouldn’t still be affecting you now. It’s as if each moment in life exists in a vacuum, separate and untouched by anything that happened prior to this moment.

The thing is, everything that’s happening right now is impacted by everything that has preceded it.

Our brain filters each perception through a lens of past experience, it predicts the next moment based on past experience, and it reacts with primitive automatic reactions that are—you guessed it—based on past experience.

Obviously, then, our past experiences influence everything in our current life.

Of course, not everyone who has survived trauma in their life will continue to be haunted and controlled by it. Many can and do heal, going on to live content and successful lives with the past nothing more than a fading scar.

At the same time, many others continue to struggle in various ways.

Many mental health systems push for positive, trauma-informed practices and awareness. Unfortunately, their policies are typically based in re-traumatizing narratives and reinforcement of trauma-based self-perceptions.

The following are some ways in which trauma commonly impacts a trauma survivor’s life.

Imagine, as you read through, how different our society might be if systems of care and justice were as trauma-informed as your life might be…

Sense of Self

War, violence, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, chronic invalidation, chronic racism, chronic oppression, poverty—these things profoundly shape and/or re-shape how people view themselves.

If you’ve been ignored, gaslit, blamed, or chronically invalidated, you’re probably going to pretty quickly get the idea that you don’t matter. Worthlessness, feeling invisible, constantly doubting yourself, and feeling two inches tall become a way of life.

Being violated, assaulted, or even assaulting another creates such a fundamental sense of shame deep within one’s soul that it festers like hidden mold behind a layer of glossy paint. Feelings of defectiveness and self-hatred appear reasonable and can be taken as objective fact.

If you’ve been told your whole life that you’re a piece of shit, guess what? You’re probably going to believe that you’re a piece of shit.

You don’t just snap out of these kinds of thinking simply because you get older. And, you definitely don’t stop thinking this way just because someone tells you to get over it.

Relationships

Our sense of self directly impacts how we interact with others. Self-hatred and feelings of inferiority and worthlessness make it pretty difficult to make small talk or engage in light-hearted verse. Not to mention that these feelings get projected onto others—we love to assume that everyone thinks just like us. If you look at yourself with disdain and fury, you’re pretty likely to assume everyone’s looking at you like that. And, who wants to engage with someone who thinks you’re defective and awful?

We are taught from our first breath how to interact with those around us and what to expect from others. If those people to whom you are closest hurt you, then you learn that everyone will hurt you. Despite “knowing” that it’s inevitable, you will likely spend a great deal of energy trying your darndest to stop that hurt from happening; never really allowing yourself to just be with another.

It is fairly common for those who have experienced interpersonal trauma, specifically, to view people through the lens of the “drama triangle.” This trauma lens perceives all humans to play one of three roles: the perpetrator, the victim, or the rescuer. The thing is, these roles are ever shifting. Any one individual will be perceived as taking on one of these roles at any given time… including oneself.

When people are perceived as always playing a role of a savior, someone to feel sorry for, or a monster, it becomes really difficult to actually see the person before you (or yourself!) for who they really are. Worse, someone always has to be a monster. The fear and anger never end.

Parenting

We all know that trauma tends to repeat itself across generations. Perhaps there’s some epigenetic piece to this, but there is no doubt as to the role of direct trauma and stress as well.

If you (or those closest to you) are always a potential monster, this sets up an extremely precarious situation in which to bring up a helpless and totally dependent baby. You fear becoming the monster and so might become passive or over-protective. Or, perhaps you do become the monster and repeat the cycle of abuse. Worse, you might start to perceive the child to be the monster.

Often, parents whose needs were never met as a child will look to their own children to get their needs met. This sets up a cycle of parentification, lack of attunement, and emotional neglect. This is the cycle of trauma that stays hidden behind layers of enmeshed love and toxic interdependence.

Parenting is hard when you’ve never had a healthy parent to learn from.

Career

Trauma is a tricky devil. There is no singular path away from pain; what for one person might be a life of self-sabotage and expected failures is, for another, a life of over-achievement and incredible success.

What is shared underneath these seemingly opposite paths is a fundamental sense of inferiority.

For the person who struggles to get ahead and/or to keep a job there are a plethora of merging factors that can cause this. Perhaps academic capabilities have been stunted by severe neglect. Intense stress and emotional overwhelm makes it nearly impossible for many to focus on silly things like algebra or Charles Dickens. If you’re the sort to act out your pain, from the get-go you might be labeled a troublemaker and have others instill repeated messages of your hopeless future. Authority figures are frequently seen as dangerous and hypocritical; if you can’t get along with authority, you’re not likely to do so well in school or job.

Worse, when in chronic survival mode, the future is bleak—if it’s possible to believe in its existence at all. And, so, going to college or saving for what’s ahead just seems, frankly, dumb.

Let’s not forget, of course, that having a mental health diagnosis, especially the more severe ones that are themselves directly associated with trauma, leads to prejudiced hiring and discrimination in the workplace.

On the other hand, hyperfocusing on academics and/or a job might become itself a coping tool to escape the horrors of home/community/peers, etc. Feelings of inferiority might fuel a never-ending effort to prove yourself. Life might become motivated solely or largely by fleeting moments of praise and accolades.

Whichever divergent path you might find yourself on, it’s an exhausting one that rarely is fulfilling and often reinforces that gnawing sense of emptiness and self-hatred.

Freedom

If you’re controlled by the past, it’s hard to feel free regardless of your external circumstances. It also exponentially increases your odds of losing your external freedom as well.

Increased traumatic experiences directly relate to increased chances of jail, hospitalization, addiction, chronic psychosis, AOT orders, guardianships, and severe health issues.

If you’re trapped by the past, you’re very likely to be trapped, literally, in the present.

Experiencing chronic and multiple traumatic events drastically increases the odds that someone will be arrested and incarcerated. Almost half of all women in jail and a third of men have a lifetime history of PTSD. And that’s just including overt, DSM-defined traumatic experiences. Add in racism, oppression, emotional abuse, and emotional neglect and I would venture to guess that the prevalence approaches 100%.

Being locked up in a psychiatric hospital is inherently associated with past trauma. One study showed that 91% of admitted patients report overt trauma, with 69% reporting repeated, chronic trauma. Another found that almost 100% report overt trauma. Not to mention how common it is for people to be directly traumatized by the treatment experience itself.

The homeless population consists nearly entirely of trauma survivors, particularly childhood trauma. And once homeless, it is common to be trapped in a cycle of housing problems, jailtime for minor infractions, and being sent to the psych ward.

Physical Health

It shouldn’t be that surprising that chronic stress and trauma would leave your body in a toxic state.

Traumatic experiences have been shown repeatedly to be directly associated with: autoimmune disease, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, adolescent obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and Alzheimer’s.

And when you consider all of the above, you can see how quickly things compound.

If you’re lonely and filled with hate for yourself, you’re not likely to be so interested in healthy eating. Conversely, you might become obsessed with some factor of your body like, say, weight, and starve or purge or excessively exercise to make up for your perceived defectiveness.

If you aren’t making money, you can’t even afford to eat healthy or go to some fancy gym. If you live in the United States, you’ll also likely have terrible healthcare, if you have it at all.

The meals in locked facilities are about as healthy as what is fed to lab rats to keep them merely alive. The drugs given and/or forced in these places not only can result in obesity, digestive issues, brain damage, and blood problems, they also can make a person numb, hyperactive and/or shut down, and agitated, leading to its own cascade of health issues.

If you’re addicted to street drugs, alcohol, food, and/or risky lifestyles, health declines fairly rapidly.

Even if you are relatively healthy, trauma can be felt in the body through chronic pain, pseudoseizures, unexplained pain, digestive issues, memory problems, numbness, clumsiness, tight muscles, headaches, teeth erosion and jaw pain, and breathing issues. Any one of these can itself directly lead to more severe injury or health issues over time.

Having a diagnosis, history of hospitalization, and/or history of incarceration directly results in discrimination by healthcare workers. So, even if you’re fortunate to have access to decent healthcare, you’re still not likely to receive it.

Trauma and all of the additive effects of the sequelae of trauma understandably may lead to suicidality, self-harm, and passive suicidal behaviors.

Is it that surprising, then, that those with a significant trauma history have a lifespan decreased by 20 years?

Imagine if our systems of care and our governments understood this. Imagine if they developed programs around these ideas. Imagine if all the money spent on finding the genetic roots of everything mentioned here, or on pharmaceutical interventions, was instead spent on helping people heal from trauma?

Better, what if such funds were directed towards creating a less traumatic society? More equality, more compassion, more social services, greater access to quality healthcare, access to healing modalities not couched in further prejudice, more protection for children, more rehabilitative rather than punitive reactions, more relaxation, and more love and connection. Imagine.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent Noel,

    One thing “trauma informed” often does is keep it alive, many therapists have no business “healing trauma”.
    For many, a rational approach, with an awareness brought of how the past impacts in strange manners that don’t always mimic a past at all, but with reminders of how we do not have to be victims of ourselves or others.

    Psychiatry retraumatizes in the ways of labels and meds. And it is the first great mistake people make is to go to victimizers.
    They make a victim out of you and then blame you for it.

    And oddly, psychiatry should know by now that our brains tend to be like a connect-a-dot and that their connect-a-dot is as fallible as their clients.

    There are much wise things that come from life experiences, even if we call it trauma, it makes us uniquely us.

    I doubt that there is a script of how humanity should be, of how we should not have trauma, or be hurting.

    It is that idea where psychiatry has a hayday with their connect-a-dot ideas.

    Thinking about how others function or do not function well is great, but applying our thoughts and solutions over their stories is presumption.

    It can be a fun, and logically driven conversation between 2 people trying to come to conclusions, knowing there might never be one.

  2. “Traumatic experiences have been shown repeatedly to be directly associated with: autoimmune disease, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, adolescent obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and Alzheimer’s.”

    I’m afraid this a bit misleading, and plays into the hands of the psychotropic drug pushers who deny their “medication” is harmful. Being poly-drugged with antipsychotics, benzodiazepines and antidepressants , lead to all of the somatic illnesses you mention.

    It’s strange that trauma has been shown to be directly related, but psychotropic drugging hasn’t. You say directly, which leaves me to conclude that any psychiatric drug intervention is not relevant.

    In the article you mention:

    “The authors found that ACE-related health risks, namely mental illness, social problems and prescription medication use, accounted for about 30 percent of the 50 percent greater risk of death seen in this population.”

    To me, that suggests medication has a direct role to play.

    • “Meds” cut your life expectancy by 25-30 years.

      I felt inferior. My shrink said, “No Rachel. You don’t have an inferiority complex. According to my DSM you really are inferior.” 😀

      Actually trauma by itself could have been overcome. Psychiatry ruined my life in every way imaginable.
      No friends. Too sick and old for a family or career. Living in poverty and isolation. Too sick to leave my room some days.

      I sit alone awaiting the sweet release of death. Beyond any hope of improvement in this world.

      It’s too late and I’m too damaged for anything good. I’ll spend the rest of my days holed up alone in some relative’s spare bedroom like my “schizophrenic” great aunt who also gave up on life after Psychiatry had its way with her.

      Nowhere to get rid of her shame. She lived out her days closeted away-a desolate woman cut down in her teens.

      • We love you here at MiA. You CAN choose to be a happy person, if you so choose. You DO have that power. We ALL have that power. If you don’t think you have enough of that power on your own, – here, wait a sec, ok, THERE IT IS, – I’m sending you a whole bunch of my power through the Akashic Records….You should start receiving it in your dreams tonight, and feeling it start to work in the morning….It’s just a little seed of power, so please water it with tears, and make sure it gets plenty of Sunny smiles. It’s Spring, so it’ll grow good for you….YOU CAN HEAL, because I KNOW YOU CAN!….

        • Thanks for your kind words Bradford. 🙂

          Part of it’s not withdrawal nor my TBI or other residual damage. Nor even shame.

          It’s grief I have never been able to process till now. Too old and damaged to do a lot of things. But there’s still much I can do.

          Someday I will be able to go through an entire 24 hours without crying.

          • Rachel777, I wish I could sit across from you, look you in the eyes and tell you face to face how much your voice, your truth, has made an impact on me. I wish I could hug you tight. You have a beautiful way with words. You are educating so many people. You, with your story, are telling “our” story. It took reading your and Julie Greene’s words that allowed me the grace to say my own words out loud. To say that it was real, all of it. I grieve in many ways for the life stolen from me. The possibilities, not all of them, but many, gone. I too wanted a family. I did get a wonderful son, but being drugged and shocked led me into the hands of what became another nightmare, I escaped with my life and the growing life inside. But at my age now, single mom to a teenager, too old for more babies if I ever was to find someone who would choose me and value me, living with my parents on disability and unable to work, I get how the future is hard to look at. I hear you! And I hope you know how valuable you are to all of us. We survived. We fucking survived!!!

      • Rachel, as you sit there, you can in fact look back at not leaving a trail of lies, destruction and misery in your wake.
        Psychiatry can make no such claims, and although they will try to “justify” by telling others that they believed they were “helping”, they never truly believed it.

        I hope you realize that you are here, educating, it’s an unpaid job. Strictly volunteer.
        You don’t have to “prove” anything, such as being happy.
        Being unhappy is not an MI.

        It is difficult in life to feel useful if we associate it with a team of horses and a farm.
        Yet here you are and your comments have been like farm food to me.

  3. Thank you Noel,

    This article brings my history home to me. I was going around the place under the influence of compulsive anxiety practically all the time. But thankfully it’s not like that at all now.

    The anxiety was drug withdrawal induced and therefore quite irrational to any “counsellor”. I learned my own ways of coping (which worked).

    As a Catholic I never expected to be happy, so life is in a sense a bonus.

  4. I’ve repeatedly found that there is no help to be found, not even from people who purport to be championing the cause for such people. We’re all on our own, and for some people like myself, even just finding a companion is a life-long failure. With that in mind, prevention is the more reasonable route to go, and society desperately needs to stop letting government play nanny to it’s people and quit restricting access to opioids (and all other drugs, especially in a society where any adult can legally drink and smoke themselves to a miserable death, while afflicting everyone in their life — and society as a whole — in the process) and assisted suicide. One so that people can at least find some way to enjoy what life they can have, and the other for when a reasonable time to exit presents itself.

    Forcing people to endure pain and even continuing to live a unlivable life is a violation of human rights.

  5. The DSM “bible” thumpers literally attack people who are traumatized or distressed. I was attacked by Illinois “mental health” workers, as a former New Yorker, for being distressed by 9/11/2001. Almost everyone was distressed by 9/11/2001, and for good reason, according to this banker’s child who knew the wrong, war mongering and profiteering banksters were in control of America in 2001, since “all wars are bankers’ wars.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hfEBupAeo4

    But the “mental health” workers I encountered obviously were too stupid to know this in 2001. Now many people see the truth, thankfully.

    Once I’d escaped these insane “mental health” workers, and went to pick up all my medical records, the idiot psychologist who’d misdiagnosed me, tried to spew her “chemical imbalance” theory on me. Which, of course, means she believes that distress caused by 9/11/2001, is distress caused by a “chemical imbalance.” Proof the “mental health” workers are sadistic lunatics!

    And social services workers attempt to get there grubby little hands on the best and brightest children in our schools … because they get 100% on their state standardized tests. WTF!

    I agree, we should create “a less traumatic society.” And since the “mental health” workers traumatize their clients, we should get rid of the DSM “bible” thumping industries.

    We should have more “equality, more compassion.” But we do not need more child attacking “social services,” since they want to neurotoxic poison and kill the best and brightest American children. “Understandably, to maintain the current” satanic “status quo,” according to an unethical, attempted thieving, Lutheran psychologist and bailout needing banker’s son.

    Since our healthcare system is one which manages symptoms, rather than having healing people as its priority. Thus it is not of good quality, we don’t need greater access to it. I couldn’t agree more, “Having a diagnosis, history of hospitalization, and/or history of incarceration directly results in discrimination by healthcare workers.” And no one needs “access to healing modalities” which are “couched in further prejudice.”

    Definitely we do need “more protection for children.” We also need to start arresting the pedophiles and child sex traffickers, and get the “mental health” workers out of the business of covering up child abuse, which is by DSM design, and a huge societal problem now. Largely thanks to the systemic, child abuse and rape covering up “mental health” professions.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
    https://staging-madinamerica.kinsta.cloud/2016/04/heal-for-life/
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1
    https://www.amazon.com/Pedophilia-Empire-Chapter-Introduction-Disorder-ebook/dp/B0773QHGPT
    https://www.foxnews.com/us/human-trafficking-in-america-among-worst-in-world-report

    Keeping the DSM-loving “mental health” workers away from the children is of mandatory importance, if you want your child to succeed, and graduate Phi Beta Kappa, as mine eventually did, because I was able to keep the insane school social workers away from my child.

    It is because we have people motivated by profit, rather than people motivated to improve health, in charge of, working within, and financed by, the medical/pharmaceutical industrial complex, that “rehabilitative rather than punitive reactions,” are not more common within medical care. I do agree, “more relaxation, and more love and connection” would improve our society. “Imagine.”

    Yes, let’s all pray for a better world. And garner insight into the reality that those DSM “bible” thumping, systemic child abuse covering up and profiteering, “omni potent moral busy bodies,” who can’t bill to EVER help any child abuse survivor EVER, or their legitimately concerned family members, are NOT the solution.

    We do need an end to “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions’,” systemic child abuse and rape covering up crimes and profiteering. Child abuse covering up crimes systemically being committed, by the “mental health” workers, for the so called globalist “elite,” and the mainstream religions.

    • “I was attacked by Illinois “mental health” workers”

      I’m going to quote Jake Blues here Someone Else

      “I hate Illinois Nazis”

      Seriously though, the recent claims that if your concerned about ‘climate inaction’ or ‘coronavirus’ to seek professional help from ‘mental health services’ should keep them rather busy filtering out who has the money to pay for their release, and who needs the negative outcomes.

      Yeah, I don’t need to quote Jake Blues, I hate Nazis full stop. And a quick look at what these people are doing with their hate speech and whittling away of human rights shows them for what they really are. Writing it in English rather than German doesn’t really change the content.

  6. Noel, that’s so good, I can only skim parts of it at a time. I can’t read it all at once carefully. I’m doing real well, all things considered, and I’m a happy man today. But I still have a lifetime worth of healing ahead of me!
    Thank-you for such a detailed road map! How can we get your writing in front of a much wider audience, like EVERY teacher and school administrator?….

  7. *Is it that surprising, then, that those with a significant trauma history have a lifespan decreased by 20 years?
    This is very surprising, because any mild injury heals. Since human body is not like a fruit. Even if its individual parts are similar by form. The reason for this is hemoglobin and its gradual destruction.
    So with such a large decrease in life expectancy we can talk about a lot of different stresses.

  8. Born into a hostile environment, our mental parts assume roles of labeling, guarding, and controlling. They must do that, or it would betray us to hostile world. If we were in a friendly environment long enough, the parts might consider changing. Then and only then can we make that request and hope they will. Then they might stop the anxiety, depression, or volatile feelings, those instruments they needed to use when it wasn’t safe.

  9. Beautiful writing, as usual, Noel! This is the kind of talk I recall back when I initially broke into the field of therapy. I don’t know that this kind of discussion even happens in most peoples’ training these days.

    I do want to point out that one of the many reasons trauma survivors die 20 years earlier than the general population is the drugs they are given/forced to take by the “mental health” system itself. Further physiological and psychological traumatization does not appear to be particularly helpful in “treating” the effects of chronic trauma!

    Thanks for all you do to bring sanity to the crazed world of “mental health treatment.” I wish that all “mental health” workers took their cues from your philosophy.

  10. I recently left a job that was a repeat of an abusive relationship. I mean, I didn’t realize it until after I left, but the job and my co-workers took the place of an abusive partner. After I got out, I even experienced the old desperate desire to return to the abusive situation.
    I’m getting better, becoming more conscious of how I function (and sometimes don’t).
    Glad I found this resource.

  11. I’ve found that torturing people to heal them from their trauma totally ineffective.

    I mean I get it that they don’t actually call it torture but ….. lets be honest about it, oh wait lets not.

    What your suggesting Noel contains great wisdom, but unfortunately those with the ability to enact that wisdom will not do so for some reasons that may or may not be obvious. You can beat a person and get them to say anything you want (in 99% of cases, the other one needs to be unintentionally negatively outcomed but …) but to obtain the truth from them takes wisdom in ones questioning of them. Beating them, cheap, easy and looks like it’s effective coz you get the answers you want. Getting the truth takes wisdom, time and might get you information you don’t want to hear, but it’s the truth.

    The cheap easy method being used is, as you have said, not so cheap and easy in the end. Imagine if all those resources were going into healing people? We couldn’t accept their truths, that’s why we drug them, slander them, ‘gaslight’ (psychologically torture) and well, as was explained to me by an Operations Manager at one hospital “fuking destroy” them. What sort of health care professional says such things? One that had something serious to hide.

    Lots of wisdom in what you say, and I do have a glimmer of hope in among the darkness that has been forced on me by my State for nothing more than complaining about being kidnapped and tortured. It’s amazing what one can conceal by forging records and making a citizen into a “mental patient” post hoc. And now we have passed a Euthanasia Act to make killing a medical procedure, the sky really is the limit.

  12. Thank you Dr. Noel for your voice of compassion and wisdom.

    “If you’re trapped by the past, you’re very likely to be trapped, literally, in the present.”

    Yes, very true, and the sordid thing is how some psychiatrists do everything in their power to keep people trapped in the past. It’s not possible for any ethical, well-meaning professional in the MH system not to see their practices are not working and in fact are doing far more harm than good.
    Hopefully one day people will be able to receive “help” that actually helps and comes from a place of compassion and understanding instead of power and control as it is now. Thanks Dr. Noel for another inspiring and excellent article.

  13. Thank you Noel for this article. It is just what I needed to read this morning. My trauma was contained within the first thirteen months of my life: my father, Norman Holweger, was suffering extreme shell-shock from WWII. He was alcoholic, had malaria, and was too ill to be left alone. And yet, he was left with me everyday while my mother worked as a waitress. We lived in a one-room apartment in Ohio. I suffered severe neglect in my crib, and when I was thirteen-months-old, watched him die on the floor in front of my crib in a pool of blood. I chronicle my work to uncover and understand my early trauma in my book: “Healing the Wound That Won’t Heal: the Reality of Trauma.”

    I did not begin to do this work until I was 40: by that time I had worked in the mental health field for twelve years. The trauma-denial I continue to encounter has sent my “infant self” back into a period of isolation that I am just emerging from. Everything you write here is so true and relevant for me.

    I have made a decision to resurrect my nonprofit: “The Hannah Institute for the Study of Early Trauma.” My focus is not only to educate about trauma itself: but the attitudes and opinions about trauma. I have become allergic to all the ways people want to “fix” trauma. Much of the fixing has to do with people who make an income through whatever modality they work with. I have a different paradigm of what healing means to me: I don’t want anyone trying to “fix” or “heal” my infancy. It is what made me.

    This article is so powerful and cogent. With your permission, I would like to print it so I have something in hand the next time I am confronted with clichés and platitudes about trauma and healing.

  14. jospencer,

    Wonderful post and thank you

    ” My focus is not only to educate about trauma itself: but the attitudes and opinions about trauma. I have become allergic to all the ways people want to “fix” trauma. Much of the fixing has to do with people who make an income through whatever modality they work with. I have a different paradigm of what healing means to me: I don’t want anyone trying to “fix” or “heal” my infancy. It is what made me.”

    I am in love with this powerful and empowering statement.

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