As I continue to immerse myself into the world of mental health, my clinical brain
wonders why people behave and react the way they do. Oftentimes, there are reasons why a person may respond in a way that seems out of the ordinary or unpredictable. In order to eliminate judgment or misinterpretation of another’s actions, it is important to recognize the impact of trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Over the course of a lifetime, it’s common to be exposed to a traumatic event, whether it is a violent act, a significant injury, a sexual violation, or other shocking event. In response, many will experience traumatic stress—a normal reaction to an abnormal event.”
While reading this article, you may reflect on your own personal experience or may think of someone you know who’s exhibited these behaviors. Whether over the short or long term, survivors of trauma learn ways to separate the negative aspects of an event to make it through the day. For example, think of why we use Band-Aids. The purpose of an adhesive is to help heal an open wound and prevent further infection. After a traumatic event occurs, one uses their own mental Band-Aid to protect themselves from further pain.
But Band-Aids are only meant for temporary usage, and the real healing comes after. People may develop a scar. Even if they don’t, they’re likely to be reminded of the event and/or feel a lingering pain afterwards. Let’s look at some possible reactions that can happen in the aftermath of trauma.
1. Day-to-day challenges.
Trauma survivors may have difficulty sleeping, eating, maintaining hygiene, socializing, and generally functioning throughout the day. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we recognize the balance of one’s mental and physical health as essential in the way we manage emotions and react to the external world.
2. Anxiety and fear leads to avoidance.
When someone is coping with trauma, a typical response is to avoid any further pain or attention. This means distancing and detaching oneself from other people and/or different settings directly or indirectly associated with the event. Outside observers may become concerned by this withdrawal and take it personally if they do not know what the other person is experiencing.
3. Environmental triggers can cause unpredictable reactions.
A person may be subconsciously reminded of their trauma. For example, a light that is too bright might remind a person of a traumatic event, causing them to react in a way that seems inappropriate to the surrounding environment. Other examples of potential triggers may be a person’s tone of voice, colors, sounds, smells, facial expressions, body movements, etc. The result of these instances could lead to trauma-reactive behaviors such as flashbacks or night terrors. While the outside perspective may not recognize why a person is suddenly screaming or appears distracted, it is important to keep these factors in mind.
4. Self-image, judgements of ourselves, and interacting with others.
People who experience trauma may have an altered sense of self and the world around them. The guilt factor sets in when we judge our own decisions by saying phrases like, “If only I turned right instead of left” or “I should’ve stayed home and went to bed early instead of going to the event.” A person may hold onto these statements and put themselves down to attempt understanding why an event occurred. Interacting with others may be incredibly challenging for some, as topics may feel too heavy to discuss and/or small talk doesn’t seem worth engaging in. A person reacting in a social setting may present as having “brain fog.” It’s a challenge for anyone to navigate conversations while not emotionally present.
5. Hypervigilance and trauma
A person may appear easily startled and/or worried about the safety of themselves and others around them, and this may interfere with their day-to-day life. Typical responses might include constantly checking up on their loved ones out of fear that something may (or has already) happened if they have not responded. It could also foster lack of trust in their own actions or the intentions of others.
These five bullet points target many behaviors a person might exhibit; however, trauma reactions are not always clear-cut or simply detected. Whether it’s with ourselves or others coping with trauma, it’s important to be gentle and remember that we are only human.
Let’s not judge what the figurative Band-Aid represents—rather, let’s discover an understanding of our journey through these points so that the healing can begin!
American Psychological Association. (2019, October 30). How to cope with traumatic stress.
How to Cope with Traumatic Stress. https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/stress