I found myself wondering recently why a traumatic breakup with a lover over forty years ago still has such a powerful impact on my brain, so I did some research on recent findings on how psychological trauma can affect us. I was especially interested in how we can get “stuck” emotionally when traumatized.
I have always found it fascinating how one traumatic event can change everything. Ever since I did my counseling psychology internship in a rehab hospital back in the 1990s, trauma has been one my favorite areas of research.
There are a number of important misunderstandings about human trauma. The first is that a “trauma” has to be something tragic, violent or catastrophic, like being injured in combat, a natural disaster or terrible accident. This is simply not true. Our brains are all very different and may interpret any incident in our lives as traumatic, even if the event does not register as highly significant at the time.
Our psychological backgrounds and emotional sensitivity levels are so unique that a traumatic breakup or an abusive relationship can cause one person to regress or get stuck emotionally, while that same event might have little impact on someone living through a similar experience.
Trauma is not an event that happens to you, it’s how you process that event. If you are emotionally injured as a child or young adult, the outcomes can be greater than as an adult. If you receive support or help while going through a traumatic event and its aftermath, the trauma is less likely to have such long term effects. But if you experience the trauma alone and with no support, the effects can be much more long-term and traumatic, especially if that event feels like it threatens your very existence.
Depending on the severity of the trauma, your entire way of being may be formed around one traumatic event. This is because, on a neurobiological level, the trauma is not properly processed. It can rewire your brain in such a way that ultimately influences your thought patterns and behavioral responses as you get older.
Traumatic events can overwhelm you body and mind, leaving a lasting mark on your mood, relationships, and sense of self long after the trauma has ended. When trauma impairs your ability to develop full emotional maturity, this is known as arrested psychological development. Trauma can freeze your emotional response at the age that you experienced it. When we are traumatized at an early age, the memory of the trauma is stored both in our brain and body. As a result, if healing does not occur, the traumatic incident can impede healthy development.
The good news is that if we understand how traumatic this event has been in our lives and then seek proper help from a licensed therapist, most can integrate their traumatic experiences and become unstuck emotionally. For many this will mean developing more mature emotional responses and relying less on unhelpful, child-like coping methods.
Take it from me. Spending the time to fully process anything you consider traumatic in your past, can only benefit your emotional future!