How Trauma Affects Us

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The 16 Most Common Trauma Exposure Responses

Based on Self-Care for Social Workers Class and Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky:

  1. Feeling helpless and hopeless. Believing nothing you do matters or isn’t causing any change. Taking care of yourself isn’t even on the radar. It’s not worth it, and nothing feels worth it.
  1. A sense that you can never do enough. There is always more to do and not time to do it. It feels overwhelming and easy to feel what you’re doing is inadequate.
  1. Hyper-vigilance. Feeling a lot of anxiety caused by trauma, that shows through increased sensitivity to certain stimulus (noise, smell, etc), always examining your environment for threats, always thinking about your job, and experiencing a high level of stress in your body. “In this state of hyperarousal, which is the first cardinal symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, the traumatized person startles easily, reacts irritably to small provocations, and sleeps poorly.”[1]
  1. Diminished creativity. Trauma affects the brain’s capacity to be creative. In addition, if you don’t have time or space, you won’t have any time or energy to be creative. Creativity is very important to move forward and create new answers to the same challenges.
  1. Inability to embrace complexity. Trauma also affects the brain’s capacity to hold complexity and instead see things as black and white.
  1. Minimizing. Diminishing the importance of things and how work is affecting you. Thinking: ’I’m fine, not affected, can handle it’.
  1.  Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments. Feeling completely and consistently exhausted. May notice physical consequences of stress such as stomach pains, headaches, teeth grinding, jaw pain, etc. May be accustomed to being overwhelmed with work every week. This is a sign that you have to make changes.
  1. Inability to listen/deliberate avoidance. Feeling saturated and avoidant—thinking that the best part of your job is when you are not there. Being physically at work but communicating with your whole body: ‘don’t talk to me’.
  1. Dissociative moments. Checking out can be a coping method that was helpful when you were young but it is not helpful or sustainable long-term. It may look like day-dreaming, or being somewhere but your mind is elsewhere.
  1. Sense of persecution. Thinking that everyone (employer, boss, clients) is against you. Lacking the agency to do anything about your situation.
  1. Guilt. Feeling guilty in the face of other’s situations and suffering. Feeling guilty for making mistakes or taking time off.
  1. Fear. Fear for yourself, for your safety, for your well-being.
  1. Anger and cynicism. Feeling angry—could be anger at injustice, ‘the system’, at coworkers, clients, at yourself. Sometimes anger might look like cynicism, which is all too prevalent among people who experience secondary trauma.
  1. Inability to empathize/numbing. Feeling numb. If you are numb, you won’t be present with people, bringing your full capacity and love for another. You also won’t be able to see if you are doing harm.
  1. Addictions. Being addicted to harmful behaviors, substances and ways of living. Some addictions are culturally and organizationally accepted, like addiction to work, to pessimism, to criticism, or to adrenaline.
  1. Grandiosity. Thinking that it’s all up to you, that you are indispensable. Your identity has become completely consumed with work, believing that everything depends on you (even if it doesn’t).

[1]Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror.(New York: Basic Books, 1997), 35.

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