Working with individuals who have survived trauma, is one of my greatest passions. Research has suggested that 75%-85% of the population has experienced a trauma at some point in their life, however most people do not recognize certain events as traumatic, or they minimize the impact that such events have had on their lives. Needless to say, its pretty rare that anyone leaves this Earthly experience, unscathed by tough impacts of trauma.
Trauma can be experienced in so many different ways. You can experience trauma as a result of experiencing or observing physical, mental/emotional, verbal, sexual, or financial abuse. You can experience it as a result of institutionalization. You can experience it thru a major accident or natural disaster. You can experience thru systemic oppression. It can be experienced thru loss. It can be experienced thru neglect. You can experience it thru exposure to or involvement in violent acts, whether in your neighborhood, a business, in combat, on social media/online or in daily life.
Trauma has major impacts on the brain, one of many being a disconnection from certain emotional experiences. Because your brain is trying to preserve the parts of you necessary to survive and protect itself, trauma can leave you unaware of or disconnected from your emotions. For those who have experienced multiple traumas, especially over the lifetime or for an extended period of time, which is known as complex trauma, it can become even harder to access certain emotions. Trauma as its most simplified core, is an experience, that removes a sense of safety from an individual. After trauma, you develop hyperawareness around what you can do to remain safe. As a consequence, the human brain, creates all types of methods to help you maintain “safety”.
In my work, I find the following emotions, often associated with trauma or the impact that trauma has caused, to often be consciously tucked away or experienced unhealthily. Emotions such as anger, sadness, hurt , grief and shame. People both consciously and unconsciously decide to not allow themselves to experience such emotions because its either frowned upon or creates an internal of experience of feeling “weak.”
Out of those 5 emotions, I find that anger is the most accessible for many. However if someone has formed emotional rules that create an idea that anger is “bad,” it would be difficult to access, even if its experienced. Anger, is most likely to be expressed for individuals that experienced emotional abuse or trauma that was tied to aggression or aggressive acts. Anger feels the most comfortable, but its often a blanketed emotion. Anger often is concealing hurt and sadness, two emotions that the person’s subconscious determined were not “useful” emotions. Anger can be experienced when someone feels that they have been in a circumstance that mirrors the helplessness they experienced in the trauma. Anger is the “strength” that the person uses to fuel behavior or expression that when decoded says, “this is not fair, I feel taken advantaged of” “I feel unheard,” “I feel unseen,” and/or, “I don’t like how this feels and because I don’t know how to self soothe and express myself, I will show you with rage.” Sometimes people go to anger when they are really experiencing sadness or hurt, but those emotions can be viewed as “weak,” or create an uncomfortably vulnerable experience. For the brain, to experience vulnerability may put that person at risk from being hurt or taken advantaged of again.
Sadness and hurt are closely related. For the person who has experienced trauma, their understanding of and relationship with safety, security, and trust are now altered because of what they survived. Sadness and hurt do not feel safe because they often represent vulnerability. Vulnerability is built off safety, openness, transparency, empathy, trust and security. These are emotions or characteristics that are counterintuitive of what happens in trauma, therefore a person develops a hypersensitivity and hypervigilance to anything that mirrors vulnerability. If someone took advantage of you, manipulated, harmed, or coerced you, these would be appropriate feelings to experience, however, one may develop the understanding that such feelings would not allow them to be “strong” enough, to withstand such experiences. On the other end, if someone demeaned, belittled, minimized, or dismissed your feelings, you can develop a narrative that makes you believe that what you feel does not matter, therefore, experiencing or expressing such emotions are uncomfortable because you’ve learned to invalidate your own experience. There is also the idea that sadness and hurt cannot change a circumstance, or would handicap someone from being able to focus on productivity or a solution, therefore their brain says, there is no space or point to experience it.
Grief is an emotional experience that is multilayered and comes as the result of loss. Loss can be tangible or intangible. Loss is not limited to death. Loss of possession, any status or any person that has shaped our identity, is important to grieve. Its important to acknowledge how the shift in the experience with whatever we lost, has impacted us. With grief often times comes sadness. I find grief is an experience of permission. Do you feel you deserve to grieve? Most people say no. There’s reason to believe that a specific loss “is not that big of a deal,” or “its normal.” How can you grant yourself permission to feel sad for something that no longer exist? Grief is often seen as an inconvenience because people fear that it will be handicapping and last longer than they would want. Grief is not a matter of weakness. Its not a matter of staying stuck on the past. Grief also doesn’t mean that you cannot “move on “ with your life, however, often times when folks are so hell bent on moving on, the circumstances that they needed to grieve, eventually catch up with them anyway.
Lastly, is the big monster; SHAME! People feel shame about their emotions! People feel shame about being envious, jealous, angry, sad, disappointed, and fearful. Shame is the emotion that not only makes us feel “wrong” but it leads us to judging, condemning, and criticizing ourselves. Its where the idea of “bad”, comes from; it leads to an emotive experience matched with character assassination. Connecting to shame is so very important because it often has a set of beliefs associated with it, which for the sake of your healing and connection to yourself, are important to explore. You can experience shame as a result of someone telling you that you did a “bad” thing or you can experience from a loud critical voice that has created a set of rigid standards or moral code. Either way, its important to know that we all make decisions that may not have positive circumstances, but that does not have to away from who you are, if you come to a place of being more intentional.
I tell clients, to disconnect from your emotions, is to disconnect from yourself. You cannot pick choose the ways in which you want to connect with yourself. We experience emotions for a reason. We have the capacity to experience them for a reason. Emotions give us information about we relate to the world around us. They give us insight into our values and boundaries.
When it comes to engaging with your emotions, its important to acknowledge, label and accept what you’re feeling. In doing so, you can learn about what the experience is revealing, but you can also learn healthy coping skills that allow you to process the emotions, and soothe yourself. Often, when people don’t acknowledge these emotions, or try to stuff them down, they end up leaning to unhealthy relationships and behaviors to mask what's really going on. Over time, these emotions will take a toll on your body. These emotions create issues in your neurological, gastro-intestinal and immune systems.
How insightful are you when it comes to acknowledging, labeling, processing, and expressing your emotions?
I love to share this chart of emotions with my clients? Are there any emotions you feel uncomfortable connecting to? If so, which ones, and why? What rules have you created for yourself about what emotions are ok and are not ok to experience?