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Trauma Survivors Have Symptoms Not Memories Part 2

Continuing on from my previous blog, it is often said that trauma survivors have symptoms not memories. For many people their memories may be fragmented or simply non-existent.

The diagram here shows some of the most common trauma and PTSD symptoms and it’s one that I always show clients in their first session. Although sometimes it can be daunting for people to realise “there are SO many ways that trauma has affected me”, it usually also brings a huge sense of relief. An AHA moment. “Now I see WHY I was feeling so bad”. A lot of people describe it as “joining the dots”.

And starting to identify our individual symptoms is the first step to giving us a sense of control over how we feel:

  • Health problems

When trauma material cannot be processed and verbally expressed, the pain is often expressed physically. For example:

  • Exhaustion—trying to contain the symptoms of PTSD is fatiguing, making one vulnerable to more physical as well as psychological symptoms
  • Chronic pain—headaches, migraines, chest pains, painful joints, back pain, pelvic pain
  • Low immune function
  • Allergies, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, skin problems
  • Dizziness, fainting, numb or tingling body parts, fuzzy brain
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances—ulcers, irritable bowel
  • Loss of appetite
  •  Sleep problems

Sleeping for a few hours then waking up and not being able to get back to sleep, taking a long time to get to sleep at all or even totally sleepless night. In all cases, feeling exhausted during the day.

  •  Flashbacks and nightmares

In a flashback, a person may feel or act as though a traumatic event is happening again. Sometimes very short-lived, person can maintain connection with the present moment, or may lose all awareness of what is going on around him, being taken completely back to their traumatic event. Horrific nightmares reliving the traumatic event – can lead to some people being scared to drop off to sleep

  • Repetition compulsion

Some people have compulsion to repeat the trauma (not necessarily consciously) as this gives an oddly comforting feeling of familiarity and control.  These acts might put the person in danger or at least prevent them from  dealing with the original trauma. Many combat vets go into high-risk or rescue-oriented professions such as police, fire, emergency services perhaps in an attempt to transfer their experience in a meaningful way. High-risk behaviours such as skydiving, rock climbing, scuba diving, or reckless speeding. Living on the edge creates an adrenaline rush that might ward off depression and the feeling of helplessness experienced during trauma. People who experienced abuse as children may choose partners with similar characteristics as their abusers

  • Self harming and Suicidal Thoughts

Self harming most often occurs after childhood trauma (such as physical or sexual abuse), not after a single traumatic incident. Cutting, pulling out hair, anorexia or bulimia, excessive fasting or overeating, taking drugs overdoses, suicidal thoughts, even making a deliberate plan. These are all survival strategies which we learned would help us to cope with intolerable emotional pain

  • Dissociation and Numbing

Dissociation is the way the brain copes with having too much stress, a way of protecting ourselves. People describe it as a numbing or spacey feeling.

A person feels disconnected from themselves and their surroundings. This can last for just a short time, a bit like daydreaming or can be a permanent sensation. Some describe it feeling as though the world around you is unreal or that feeling as though you are watching yourself in a film or looking at yourself from the outside. Some people have memory gaps – periods of their life when they can’t remember anything that happened. Others feel that parts or all of their body are not part of them. In some cases people can feel that there are different people inside them or they hear voices.

  • Avoidance

Avoiding situations, people, feelings, tasks that remind us of the traumatic events. This can lead to quite a narrow restricted life, or even to completely shutting oneself away.

  • Hearing voices

Although we tend to associate hearing voices with serious mental illness and psychosis, many people do hear voices after trauma – some threatening, some soothing, even inspiring. Members of The Hearing Voices Network view voices as a normal part of life, not a mental illness, and use coping strategies to help manage voices without necessarily eliminating them. See their excellent website

 Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also: Coping with Overwhelming Emotions after Trauma, Safe Trauma Recovery



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