I didn’t always know that the symptoms I was experiencing were the result of trauma. One day, after years of talk therapy I’d initially sought for depression, my hands suddenly went numb during a trigger point therapy (bodywork) training. I had to remove myself from the class and the woman I was working with as my neck and throat constricted and I became flooded with fragmented memories from a life-threatening assault I had experienced years earlier. I went home that evening and collapsed into the realization and gut-wrenching pain of how much the sexual traumas had and were continuing to impact me, my relationships, my decisions, my health, and my life.
Trauma is the result of overwhelm to your system. It's not cognitive, you can't think your way out of it; it's biological. Symptoms are your body’s way of trying to get your attention, to alert you that your nervous systems dysregulation is throwing off your equilibrium and it’s time to get support.
Even though I had read wonderful books and sought treatment for years, which had helped me to process some intense grief and a harsh inner critic, it wasn’t the support I needed to heal from trauma - and trauma was at the root of everything. As the saying goes, you can’t put the cart before the horse.
Healing from trauma starts with awareness. When you understand how trauma is showing up in you, then you can begin to heal from it.
Symptoms of Trauma
Let’s take a look at many of the symptoms of trauma and how they might be impacting you.
Some symptoms can show up soon after the traumatic event, think of the early symptoms as your body’s way of letting you know something’s off and it’s time to get help or support. Others may take much longer to develop.
If you’ve effectively suppressed the overwhelming event, symptoms may take years to appear, but sooner or later they will. I see this on a regular basis in my practice - like me, many of the survivors I work with have done years of previous therapy that didn't fully address or address at all the sexual trauma and their symptoms got worse. The good news is, it's never too late to begin healing.
The following symptoms don’t always indicate trauma and aren’t meant for diagnostic purposes, yet if they persist, it may be a sign that you have some unresolved trauma that needs healing.
The symptoms are divided into five categories. Take note of, or jot down any symptoms you’ve experienced.
heightened startle response
frequently scanning the environment for danger or watching for trauma reminders
feeling on edge or having feelings of anxiety
related physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, upset stomach, or headaches, or tight constricted muscles
becoming irritable, quick to anger, or aggressive
risky or impulsive behaviors (conscious or unconscious)
2. Reexperiencing the trauma, these can include dissociation.
distressing thoughts and feelings about the trauma
emotional distress after being triggered by a reminder of the trauma
physical responses after being triggered
flashbacks (they can be sensory, auditory, or visual)
unconsciously re-enacting the trauma in hopes of a better outcome
3. Avoidance of trauma reminders, these can be conscious or unconscious and can include dissociation.
avoidance of people, places, or things related to the trauma
avoidance of activities related to the trauma
avoidance of conversations related to the trauma
suppressing thoughts related to the trauma
using drugs, alcohol, food or other addictive behaviors to suppress uncomfortable thoughts and emotions
4. Negative thoughts or feelings, most of these can be signs of depression and can include dissociation.
excessive blame toward oneself (shame) or others related to the trauma
loss of any memory related to the trauma
loss of interest in activities
difficulty experiencing positive feelings
feeling isolation, or disconnection from surroundings
excessive negative thoughts about oneself
excessive negative thoughts about the world
5. Physical health issues, these symptoms usually take longer to develop and were likely preceded by some of the earlier symptoms.
immune system problems
some endocrine problems, such as thyroid malfunction and environmental sensitivities
disordered eating, especially bulimia
pelvic floor pain, uterine fibroids, vaginismus*
digestive problems, such as IBS, acid reflux, and SIBO (leaky gut)
chronic pain, chronic fatigue, or fibromyalgia
* Painful spasmodic contraction of the vagina in response to physical contact or pressure (especially in sexual intercourse).
Because it can feel a little overwhelming to read these symptoms, I invite you to feel into the support of the chair or surface you’re sitting on, and the ground supporting your feet. Next slowly look around the room you’re in as you take some nice deep yet relaxed breaths. When you feel calm and ready, take a look over the symptoms you’ve identified.
The following questions are intended as a reflection, to help you think more deeply about how trauma could be showing up in your life.
Do you have a lot of symptoms in one category, some in several categories, or symptoms in each? Write down the categories with the most symptoms you’ve identified.
Are there any symptoms you want to add?
How do you feel about having these symptoms?
How would your life be different if you didn’t have these symptoms?
As you review this list, know that you’re not alone in your symptoms. Although you may not know their names, there are many others traveling this path along with you. The symptoms differ for each person, but all are common among survivors.
It’s important to note that trauma, like stress, creates an excess of adrenaline in the body that, if untreated, can lead to adrenal exhaustion, depression, and other physical and emotional symptoms. This is just one of many ways your systems equilibrium is thrown off by trauma.
I’ve seen many people overcome the symptoms in the first four categories, with symptom reduction or restored health in the fifth category, physical health issues. Healing trauma earlier in life may prevent the long-term health issues caused by trauma.
Trauma is showing you where the wounds are and where to place your attention and care.
Since symptoms can continue on and new ones may appear years after the overwhelming event, some people have concluded that trauma is the gift that keeps on giving. That is until you’re resourced enough to be aware that it’s time, and you’re ready and able to do the work needed to heal.
Wishing you much ease and self-compassion on your healing journey.