There are a lot of hot topics in the mental health arena right now. People love to talk about self-empowerment, ending toxic relationships, and mindful meditation practices. These are valuable talking points with plenty of helpful information to be gleaned. But there is another, less “hot” topic that we need to discuss. The T word. The Big T. Trauma.
You might think, “I don’t have trauma!” As a therapist, I’ve heard this proclamation countless times from clients who come to my office to talk about their anxiety or depression symptoms. “I had a great childhood,” they tell me. “I have a great life. There’s no reason for me to feel this way.” These are the kind of statements people make to minimize their undesired feelings and attribute their struggles to nothing more than their own innate defectiveness. This theme became so repetitive in my practice, that I started my Instagram account, @drheidigreen, to educate people on common mental health misconceptions and provide tools for living a happier life.
So, let’s get real. We are all the product of our life experiences, and trauma is part of the human experience. Your traumatic experiences, big or small, create an imprint on your brain and your heart and become a part of who you are. Trauma impacts the way you see yourself and the world. It dictates the way you respond to conflict, adversity, and stress. Whether or not you want to acknowledge it, you too, have a T-Spot. You might not know where it is, you might not know how to find it, but it’s there, and it’s time to talk about how to access it so you can clean out your old wounds and be the healthiest, happiest version of you possible.
What is Trauma Anyway?
Let’s define the word trauma. Most people who think they don’t have trauma, say that because they define trauma as catastrophic events like physical or sexual abuse, the death of a parent or child, rape, or near-death experiences. While these overt experiences certainly are trauma, I define trauma as any painful experience that has a negative impact. With that definition in mind, we open the door to a variety of experiences from childhood bullying, emotionally unavailable parents, learning difficulties, poverty, rejection, significant life changes like moving or romantic break-ups, job losses and more. We are all impacted by our painful life experiences. These traumas change us, and if we aren’t mindfully aware of the ways our trauma impacts us, those experiences can color the way we interact with the world in profoundly unhelpful ways.
So how do you find your T-Spot? Well for starters, you need to recognize that none of your adult struggles are random. You aren’t in distress “for no reason.” Your upsetting emotional states exist for a reason, and one of those reasons is trauma. You might think, “Well I have a family history of [insert mental health diagnosis here], so I’m just destined to feel this way.” Your biology plays a role, but it isn’t the only factor in your mental health. Genetics predispose us to certain traits, but it’s our life experiences that activate those traits.
You are a culmination of every life experience you’ve ever had. Those experiences instilled messages about who you are, how others perceive you, and how to behave to protect yourself, your relationships, and your sense of self-worth. You can identify your T-Spot with another T word: Triggers. What situations activate a strong emotional response inside you? We aren’t born with triggers. They develop in response to situations that make us feel physically or emotionally unsafe. So, when your internal alarms start sounding, you know you’ve hit your T-Spot. Once you identify a trigger, ask yourself, “What does this remind me of?” Your answer will be an unresolved trauma.
How Early Life Trauma Impacts Adults
Let’s say you grew up in a home with a parent struggling with a mental or physical illness. You may have learned that your parent was fragile, that you needed to be strong and take care of them. You also might have learned that when you had needs, it was overwhelming for them and they were unable to attune to you. As a result, you learned to ignore your needs and be a “good child” who was helpful, accommodating and attuned to the needs of your parent. While these responses were adaptive in childhood and helped you earn connection and affection from a compromised parent, these qualities probably interfere in your adult relationships. You may be overly accommodating of others, have trouble setting boundaries or saying no, and harbor unspoken resentments because you feel taken advantage of and disrespected by the people closest to you.
“I don’t know why I’m so angry and resentful,” you might say. The answer is trauma. Your unique trauma history causes you to ignore your needs, but it doesn’t eliminate those needs. As such, your unmet human needs lead to feelings of resentment towards those for whom you pour all your energy. Because you do not express your needs or your dissatisfaction, those close to you might not have any idea why you are upset or even know that there is anything wrong. You may hold them accountable, but ultimately, it is your responsibility to make your needs known.
This is just one example of the countless ways our early life trauma impacts our adult functioning and overall wellness. If we want to be the best versions of ourselves, we need to identify and resolve our past trauma, so we don’t continue reacting to our lives from a triggered state. If you recognize that your early experiences are interfering with your ability to be your best self in the present, it could be time to seek the help of a therapist. A therapist can walk you through your traumatic experiences and help connect the dots between adaptive childhood thoughts and behaviors that have transformed into unhelpful adult thoughts and behaviors. With that knowledge, you can set yourself on course to change your unhelpful ways of being and shift into your healthiest, happiest self.
Article by Heidi Greene, Psy.D