Trauma has many devastating effects on our lives. I have written an article about some of the most damaging symptoms here, but what about some of the less obvious symptoms?
In this article I will discuss five symptoms you may experience that you may not have associated with trauma.
1. Aches and Pains
Aches and pains are a normal part of life, especially as we get older. But did you know trauma can be a major cause of physical pain?
Cortisol is one of the body’s stress hormones, and it increases sensitivity to pain. Survivors often spend their life in a high-stress state and therefore feel the normal aches of life more keenly.
On top of this, when we repress traumatic memories they are stored in our bodies and form trigger points in our muscles. This is exacerbated by muscle armouring, a symptom of PTSD. Armouring is “bracing” the muscles- holding them tightly as if prepared for attack. This is obviously useful in moments of genuine danger, but survivors often spend their whole lives in this state of readiness, which leads to painful, tight muscles and makes trigger points worse.
How do we release trigger points?
Releasing trigger points is a matter of locating them, then applying pressure. A lot of trigger points can be released using your thumbs by simply pressing down for a minute or so. Start by feeling around your muscles until you feel a tight spot- it might feel like a pea- that is accompanied by “good” pain. You are looking for the type of pain you get during a massage- if you feel “bad” pain at any point you should stop. When you find the right spot, simply press down for a minute or so.
The amount of pressure to apply varies by person and by area- take it slowly and start gently, before building up the pressure. Ensure you are breathing slowly and deeply into the feeling as you want to encourage your body to relax as much as possible. Envision the trigger point releasing- consciously relax it. After a minute, you may feel the release- although some trigger points are very stubborn, having been created over years, and will take multiple sessions to release.
Please take care when doing this work!
Be mindful that trapped emotions and memories are stored in the muscles, and as they release, these memories and emotions may rush to the surface to be processed. This is completely natural and something to embrace as long as you go slowly and prioritise self-care as these emotions can be powerful and painful to experience. If you find this happening, try to relax into it and not fight the feelings. After some time, the feeling will cease and you will feel noticeably lighter.
If you feel up to it, write in your journal about the experience and if not, make yourself a comforting tea or hot chocolate and have a nice warm bath or shower, put on some comfortable pyjamas and pat yourself on the back- you are healing! Be proud of yourself.
Some parts of the body, such as the back muscles, respond well to a foam roller, peanut massage ball or regular massage ball. I have personally found the peanut massage ball to be wonderful at releasing trigger points in my back, shoulders and neck. You can also use a tennis ball if you have one laying around.
More on trigger point release:
I have written more about trigger points in my article How to Heal Trauma (part two)– including links to some excellent resources. I am currently working on an extensive guide to trigger point release as this is one of the most powerful healing methods in my experience, and since I started I have seen my healing progress exponentially.
2. Cold Hands and Feet
I have suffered for years with cold fingers and toes- to the extent they become entirely white and numb when the temperature drops even slightly. I had no idea it was PTSD related, though! In fact, it is a symptom of both PTSD and anxiety. The fight/flight response which is almost always activated in people with high anxiety and PTSD causes the blood to be drawn towards the vital organs and away from the extremities, leaving fingers and toes icy cold.
You will find that as you heal and move away from that constant “panic” state, this issue will naturally resolve itself. Until then, remember your thick socks and gloves in winter time, and try to have a hot drink in your hands as much as possible! It can also be helpful to keep moving, to try and pump blood back to the extremities.
3. Need for Control
When you were a child, you had no control over your situation. You likely felt powerless in the face of abuse, and guilty that you could not stop it.
In adulthood, this can translate as a need for control that can manifest in bizarre ways- for example, you might “need” to have your things in a certain order to feel safe and get quite angry if things are moved. You might react negatively to last-minute changes such as plans changing with friends or being placed into a new work role without any notice, because in your mind you had prepared for one set of eventualities and you felt you had some control over what might happen.
As survivors, we hold on tightly to our sense of control because it makes us feel safe. We might even try to manipulate people such as romantic partners into behaving how we want them to because we feel if we control the situation, they are less likely to abandon us. This need for control is ultimately self-sabotaging, though- being likely to drive partners away.
Healing is about letting go. It is about coming to the realisation that very little is actually under your control except for your own mind. When we spend so much time trying to control outer situations and other people, we neglect the reality that we DO have a lot of control over ourselves, over our own thoughts, feelings and actions.
Ways to relinquish control:
If we practise mindfulness meditation, it will help us come to the realisation that who we are is, in fact, separate from our thoughts. We exist on a deeper level, as the observer of those thoughts. When we come to understand this, we begin to exercise real control over those thoughts, and once we can do this, our need for control in the outer world diminishes.
We can practise mindfulness in many ways. One of my favourites is to take mindful showers. Before you get in, set your intention to be mindful. Take some deep breaths. When you are in the shower, try to stay completely in the moment- feel the water on your skin, listen to the sound it makes, smell the scent of the soap. Being mindful is about fully experiencing the present moment as it is. Each time your mind wanders to thought of the past or future, gently bring it back to the moment. Fully enjoy the shower, and feel with your whole being that this moment is all we truly have.
You can practise this at any time. Eating mindfully is a whole new experience- rather than rushing to eat whilst watching television, we can slow down, remove distractions and take time to fully appreciate our meal. We can cook mindfully, we can walk mindfully, we can sit mindfully on a park bench. We can aim to spend as much time as possible in this moment- not drowning in sorrowful memories or frozen by fear of the future.
As we expand the practice of mindfulness, we loosen our tight grip on life. On ourselves and others. We come to understand that there is no need to try and control the future- we can just enjoy this moment, this now, always.
We create so much more pain for ourselves when we try to control what is outside of our control. Life will always throw curve-balls, and it is a sign of low self-esteem when we do not believe ourselves capable of adapting to change. As we heal, as we let go, we realise our own flexibility and capability. As we learn to trust other people rather than trying to control them, we allow them the freedom to choose to be with us- and often that freedom is all people need to feel safe enough to not abandon us.
4. Need to be constantly occupied
Survivors often struggle to be alone with their thoughts, because that is when memories and flashbacks creep in. For this reason, we often feel the need to be constantly busy- spending mindless hours browsing the internet, watching films, listening to loud music, pursuing sex and love, engaging in addictive behaviours. We think this constant activity will keep the demons at bay, but in reality, the longer we spend avoiding them the stronger they grow.
Being constantly busy is an example of a flight response. We often think of flight as running away physically, but it can be used to mean running away mentally and emotionally, too. We do anything to avoid sitting with ourselves, because we know that is what we really need to do to heal, and we know instinctively how much it will hurt. But the difference between the pain of releasing trauma and the pain of suppressing it is huge.
When we suppress trauma, it hurts so much more, in many more ways, for so much longer than when we choose to acknowledge the trauma, sit with the pain of it and release it for good. It is the difference between pulling a tooth out quickly and allowing it to rot because we are too scared to go to the dentist (another weird symptom of trauma, by the way).
Suppressed trauma becomes shame. It becomes rage turned inward. Released trauma takes shame with it- leaves you feeling the purity that sits at the core of you.
Released trauma creates space in us for love.
Each day, try setting aside just 10 minutes to sit with yourself. Turn off all distractions, sit comfortably and just exist. Be fully in your body. Feel the blood coursing through your veins, the air filling your lungs with each deep breath you take. Feel the bottoms of your feet meet the earth. Let your mind go where it wants to. Note any physical sensations that arise, and feelings that come with them.
Your soul will speak to you only in quiet whispers- it cannot be heard above the din of your avoidance. After the time is up, make some notes in your journal about how you felt, what you thought about and bodily sensations you had.
When you are comfortable with 10 minutes, try to increase the time. Like this, you can train yourself to relax into the moment rather than trying to escape it by any means necessary. Challenge yourself to longer and longer time periods. See what comes up. Feel it fully, heal it, release it.
5. Easily Startled
Traumatised people often live between two extremes- hyperarousal and hypoarousal. In my article Fight Flight Freeze- Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma, I discuss hypoarousal in depth- basically it is the state of dissociative numbness we can fall into to try and balance out the hyperarousal, which is the “fight/flight” state where the body is tensed and prepared for danger.
PTSD can lead us to spend much of our time in these two states rather than in the middle ground of calm, relaxed alertness neurotypical people tend to inhabit. Hypervigilance is a PTSD symptom that arises from hyperarousal. It is a state of constantly scanning for potential threats and seeing them everywhere even when they do not exist. Hypervigilance leads us to feel uneasy when we have to sit with our back to the room, instead choosing to sit in a corner, facing the room. We scan for exits. We watch people’s body language incessantly. It also causes us to have an exaggerated startle response- if someone does manage to “sneak up” on us without us noticing, we tend to jump out of our skin. If someone scares us purposefully, even in a joking way, it can trigger us into a full-blown panic attack.
What happens when we are startled?
Our nervous system goes immediately into “defense mode”. Our heart races and breathing becomes shallow, we might cover our face and neck or curl up into a ball. We might begin to panic if we cannot control the breathing, as shallow breaths reinforce to the brain that the situation is dangerous and set up a negative feedback loop. We might scream loudly or start to cry, which can feel very shameful, particularly if surrounded by people who do not understand our condition. We might simply run away. Once our nervous system activates it can take a long time to return to any sort of “baseline” (which, with PTSD, is already way off “normal” anyway). We can be triggered into a flashback that could last days or weeks (see my article on emotional flashbacks for some great coping methods).
How can we learn to cope with our startle response?
The startle response is something that will likely always be with us, but we can manage it. Practise deep breathing to calm yourself, especially in situations where you feel uneasy or there are lots of people around. Make sure you tell friends and family about this symptom (as long as they are trustworthy), so they can avoid startling you when necessary- for example they could clear their throat or gently say your name when approaching you. Do not tell people who you think will use this information against you for cheap laughs- and believe me there are people out there like that.
When it does happen, prioritise breathing deeply as this is the best way to calm the nervous system- it tells your brain that you are safe. Above all, don’t feel embarrassed. This is a direct result of being traumatised and not your fault or anything to be ashamed of. You might even find that as you heal, you start to see the funny side of it.
There are many more “strange” symptoms of trauma- let me know in the comments if you can think of any from your own experience. I will certainly be returning to this topic. I hope this article has been helpful in reminding you that a lot of these effects on your life are trauma-based and many of them will lessen as you heal, and even go away entirely.
Thank you so much for reading. Thank you for Being!
With Love, in Love, always. 💜
More articles from artoftrauma:
Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part One, Part Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Trauma Symptoms you didn’t know were symptoms
5 Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing
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