Living With Unidentified Trauma Symptoms

Cami Dobrin / Vecteezy

“One who returns to a place sees it with new eyes. Although the place may not have changed, the viewer inevitably has. For the first time things invisible before become suddenly visible. —Louis L’Amour

I’ve always felt there is something fundamentally wrong with me. Sometimes I get these anxiety spells out of the blue. They often come on when some authority figure is mad at me or my wife or kids goes out of town. It drives me nuts. I get jumpy, can’t sleep and have feelings of doom and gloom for no reason. People who know me just laugh. After all I am an operations manager of a large corporation. It’s not like I don’t know stress. They think it’s foolish for me to worry.

I feel like a real fraud. I work as the youth pastor at our church. Parishioners see me as a calm and patient minister who is good with kids, especially the teens who act like animals sometimes. Normally parishioners feel I am the voice of reason and have no reservations entrusting their loved ones to me. In fact I am a bit of a pushover when it comes to kids. I never get too excited. That all changes when I drive in city traffic. Something comes over me. I turn into a monster, honking and giving people the finger. People who drive slowly in the left lane just piss me off. Sometimes I swear out the window. Oh, I’ve tried to calm myself. I pray the rosary before I hit the road. I just can’t help myself. Sometimes I worry that one of these days I will flip off one of our elderly parishioners and the jig will be up for me.

I’m the top sales rep at our company. With my cool good looks, bright red skirt and smile I can sell ice cream to the Eskimos. What I can’t do is convince my boyfriend that he has nothing to worry about. Just because I spend a lot of time around men doesn’t mean I’m sleeping with them. I don’t know what his problem is. You know it’s funny.  I can have men eating out of my hand but I can never get why they feel the way they do. Makes it hard to keep a man that way. And I do mean hard.

Many reasonably functioning people live with persistent trauma symptoms and don’t even know that they do. All they know is that certain parts of their life get periodically out of control and affect their moods or else they just feel numb and out of touch. They don’t know why they have such patterns or what they can do to change them. They just get off track sometimes and learn to live with such anomalies. Sometimes they cost of living with unidentified suffering is significant; other times it’s bearable. Overall people with this condition lead lives of diminished expectations and unfulfilled dreams. Frequently they blame themselves for their underachievement but are unsure what they have done wrong to warrant such setbacks, or how to correct them. Unfortunately they lack an awareness that how they behave today is directly the result of early childhood trauma. If only they could see their place in the world with a fresh set of eyes!

Most of us associate the concept of trauma with war and disaster survival, some forms of extreme abuse, or with some unexpected and overwhelming life tragedy. Clearly the suffering from such dramatic catastrophes cannot be understated. However some of the worst forms of trauma occur as a result of rather undramatic, faulty bonds between parents and their infants in the first three years of life and early latency years. What could be more scary than to be an infant with a frightening, self-centered parent?! Indeed, when parenting is deficient, it is the ultimate prisoner-of-war camp experience for the infant. As the old saying goes, the hand that rocks the cradle indeed rules the world.

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The trauma is due to toddlers being trapped by their caregivers, the fact that they are hurt by the very people who are supposed to protect them and the fact that such harm occurs in early and significant brain development years. In fact, one of the reasons why people living with chronic trauma cannot explain how they got that way is due to the fact that such harm occurred to them prior to their development of language. What we cannot speak in the first place cannot be put into words later. Ironically and tragically the harm that occurs to such infants is often done in the name of love.

All of the people in the examples above had harmful relationships with well-meaning caregivers in infancy. They received many good aspects of a solid foundation in life from their parents. However they also received frightening experiences that persistently compromised their sense of self. It’s normal to get knocked around by life. However, getting permanently damaged is another story. It’s what makes such experiences traumatic.

There is good news about recovering from hidden trauma. We don’t need to be stuck by chronic self-defeating trauma patterns. Unrecognized trauma can be recognized and overcome. Although early trauma often cannot be put into words, it is remembered in our bodies. Our body always keeps the score of what has happened to us throughout our lifetimes. This knowledge has been made more clear by current brain research that use advanced technology to actually see the brain in action. New brain research gives hope that trauma is best healed by psychotherapy that pays attention to body sensations and uses these sensations to provide a corrective emotional experience. Shifting the body to live in the present allows us to put our trauma in our past and change old patterns. Even if we never find the words to say what happened to us, there is hope.

Signals of unidentified trauma

Most likely you already know at some level if there is something wrong with you that cannot be expressed in words. Hidden trauma is more likely when:

  • you were regularly scared of, controlled by or given inconsistent attention by your parents in earliest years
  • your feelings as a toddler were rarely the center of comforting attention
  • you either grew up with regular chaos or exaggerated order
  • you recall times as a child where you were either numb, spaced out or life felt unreal
  • you have no feelings of real closeness with your parents today
  • your parents have always been rather self-centered
  • you live today in a world of pretense where nobody knows your real self
  • you have difficulty hanging on to yourself or asserting your identity today
  • you constantly feel you have to please others or excel at what you do
  • you have unexplained periods of intense anxiety or aroused anger
  • you see your future as diminished and unpromising
  • you have periodic times when your energy is less and your sleep is unsatisfying
  • you can’t recall long periods of your early life

Should I get help?

Many of us with chronic self-defeating patterns may roll our eyes at the suggestion of getting help once again. Some of us have already tried several bouts of talk therapy and have had limited success from such efforts. Some of us are reluctant to say we need help especially when our lives are going reasonably well. After all, not all of us are made for close relationships or life fulfillment. Besides, who’s to say that I need help anyway? Or that it will do any good even if I do get it?

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The fact of the matter is that if you’re seriously reading this article, chances are good that you already know you need to get help. Why you might need help depends on how bothered you are by your present life patterns and how willing you are to take a leap of faith in doing innovative healing.

Body-centered psychotherapy really does work, often in ways that older more traditional forms of healing do not. The new technology of the brain and body connection is a whole new game changer. Getting assistance from a helper trained in body work whom you connect with does the trick. Trust yourself. In the first few sessions with a body trained helper you will know if you will be getting somewhere useful. Chances are good that your work will take a long time but really get you somewhere fairly quickly.

Reasons for hope: New brain research and body-centered psychotherapy

You can tell by now that I’m pretty excited about the promise of body-centered therapy. There are good reasons for my optimism. I have had good results with body-centered work with clients. Clients themselves seem to report getting more bang for the buck in such healing. Their symptoms seem to lessen more quickly, they become more empowered in having a self and setting boundaries with others and their moods become more stabilized more quickly than it does from doing traditional talk therapy. Clients report that body work just makes sense to them.

The other reason to be hopeful is because of all the new research on the brain. Thanks to updated brain scans we can actually see what part of the brain is affected by treatments.

It appears that what actually changes the brain is having a client face the scene of the childhood crime with the helper, in terms of what the body remembers, and then shifting sensory attention to a more comforting awareness within four hours of the trauma recall. All of this can be done without clients even being touched by helpers. Thus our brains get rewired by this “corrective emotional experience.” Such changes can actually be seen on electronic monitors.

Although there are many ways to heal, all the trauma research today seems to be pointing to body-centered psychotherapy as the optimal way to go. It’s the closest we have to a magic wand. See the following website for more details and possible referrals to helpers certified in traumatic body work: www.sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org.

Read Walking The Tiger by Peter A. Levine. Please remember that our psychological recovery and growth happens in many different ways over our lifetimes if we allow ourselves to be open to it. It’s wisest to follow your own inner guru while simultaneously getting input and compassion from the Higher Power in others. May you have a safe and promising journey to your new horizons.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Call 651-699-4573. 

This article first appeared in the July / August 2012 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission when you click on some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. Thanks for helping to support the website.

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