Trauma Therapy: Trauma Survivors Have Symptoms Instead Of Memories

Linnea Butler is the founder of Bay Area Mental Health

Trauma Therapy and Survivor Symptoms

“Trauma survivors have symptoms instead of memories”
~ Harvey, M. (1990). An ecological view of psychological trauma and recovery. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(1)
It can be really tough to try to make sense of past trauma and how it affects you in the here and now. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has a specific set of symptoms, such as nightmares and flashbacks. But the reality of complex trauma resulting from repeated traumatic events is that the effects go far beyond the symptoms outlined in the DSM.
“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds”  ~LK Hamilton

How Is Trauma Affecting You Right Now?

One of the first steps in healing from trauma is to understand the problems that you are having in your life and how they might relate back to the traumas. Not every problem originates with trauma, but there are some problems that originate with trauma that you might not expect.

trauma symptoms, child abuse, ptsd, post traumatic stress disorder
As you look at this image, what do you notice? Are you experiencing any of these problems in your life? Have any of these symptoms started to emerge as you are getting older?

Trauma Is Often Buried in Non-Verbal Memories

Trauma is often buried in non-verbal memories and stored in a different part of the brain than typical, chronological memories. These non-verbal trauma memories can be hazy images, familiar smells, body aches, nightmares, urges to do things that harm you (like addiction) or noticing that certain situations, colors or sounds trigger an emotional response that seems out of proportion with the situation. Over time, those non-verbal memories begin to surface and become more problematic in your life. The trauma is ready to speak and be heard. That’s when you know it’s time to seek some help.
“All emotions, even those that are suppressed and unexpressed, have physical effects. Unexpressed emotions tend to stay in the body like small ticking time bombs—they are illnesses in incubation.”
― Marilyn Van DerburMiss America By Day: Lessons Learned From Ultimate Betrayals And Unconditional Love
Trauma survivors are more vulnerable and susceptible to these kinds of problems or symptoms. During trauma your nervous system goes into hyper-drive, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones prepare you for action, like running away or fighting. If you aren’t able to run or fight, then you head for other defenses like freezing in place so you might not be seen, or playing dead. Then later, when you experience triggers such as an image, smell or thought, your nervous system thinks it’s back in the past trauma and fires off cortisol again. BAM, you’re in hyper-drive again and you get overwhelmed by emotions.

So here’s the good news. You can learn to modulate your emotions as part of the healing process. With coping skills, you can dampen the emotional rollercoaster. With self-care, you become less vulnerable and can tolerate more stimuli without getting triggered. The overall result is that you feel more stable in your life, your symptom is reduced and you can regulate your emotions.

Tips To Help Trauma Survivors Right Now

If you’re experiencing a number of the symptoms above, you might want to seek therapy from a trauma professional. In the meantime, here are a couple of tips you can apply to your life:

Coping Skills: When you feel overwhelmed by emotion there are some things you can use to distract yourself for a short time. Note, these tips do not solve the problem and you’ll need to come back to it later on when you feel stronger.

  • Imagine placing painful thoughts and emotions in a box and then putting that box on a shelf.
  • Run your hands under very cold water. Splash cold water on your face and back of your neck. The cold distracts your body and mind away from what is causing you pain.
  • Hand wash a dish very slowly. Wash just one dish and pay attention to every second of the experience. That will take you out of the past and bring you into the present.

Self Care: Do something that you find enjoyable. Tune in to one of your five senses.

  • Make and drink some yummy tea (smell and taste)
  • Look at a beautiful picture (sight)
  • Smell a flower or some hand lotion (smell)
  • Listen to soothing music (sound)
  • Curl up with a fuzzy blanket or put fresh sheets on the bed (touch)
  • Self-care can include a sixth sense, motion, like going for a walk or exercising or doing yoga.

Everyone needs to do self-care, whether they have trauma or not. We all have stressors in our lives and conscious, intentional self-care can help reduce our vulnerability to emotional stress.