11 Characteristics of Unresolved Trauma

Unresolved traumas are difficult to resolve. Often, instead of processing and healing them, we repress them and store them in our mental 'black boxes'. This triggers a whole series of symptoms.
11 Characteristics of Unresolved Trauma
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

We’re all exposed, at some time in our lives, to potentially traumatic events. For example, the loss of loved ones. These kinds of experiences have strong emotional impacts. They’re difficult to overcome, accept, and heal. However, as a rule, we eventually manage to recover.

That said, many people carry with them unresolved traumas. They’re states in which their minds bury the traumatic experiences in the deepest layers of themselves and try to move on. But, sadly, they don’t always manage to fully resume their existence in a healthy way.

They might tell themselves that everyone has a bad time in childhood and manage to move on. Or, that some people have had a far worse time than them and they’re still coping. However, downplaying traumatic events, instead of helping, only makes any unconscious suffering chronic. So much so that, over time, a multitude of associated symptoms end up appearing.

Unresolved trauma can haunt us throughout our lives in such covert ways that we find it hard to associate with those adverse events from our past. Musculoskeletal and digestive problems and angry outbursts are three examples.

Sad man sitting on the bed showing characteristics of an unresolved trauma
Nocturnal sleep disturbances are common effects of unresolved trauma.

Characteristics of unresolved trauma

In 2017, a study was conducted by a number of universities around the world. The aim was to explore the exposure to traumatic events of the general population. The data was revealing: more than 70 percent of the people interviewed reported having experienced a traumatic event.

This reaffirms the idea that the vast majority of us are vulnerable to suffering from these kinds of experiences. Yet, not all people deal with trauma in the same way. Some are pretty resilient while others are more vulnerable. In fact, it’s extremely common to reach adulthood harboring in our psychological universes the imprints of painful events that occurred in our childhoods.

To understand what it means not to face or heal these events, we must first define what constitutes trauma. Psychological trauma is a response that weakens our adaptive, emotional, cognitive, physical, and social capabilities. In effect, everything that makes us human fractures.

Let’s explore the effects of these circumstances.

One of the effects of unresolved trauma is that we feel like our central nervous systems are always on alert. This leads to hypervigilance, sleeping problems, poor emotional regulation, etc.

1. Panic attacks

Panic attacks frequently occur in individuals dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, sufferers almost constantly experience feelings of danger and/or threat.

This can make them constantly stressed and afraid. It can also cause them to frequently suffer panic attacks. They manifest in the following ways:

  • A sense of drowning.
  • Dizziness.
  • Cold sweats.
  • Tremors.
  • Palpitations.
  • The feeling of a loss of control.
  • Thinking that they’re about to die.

2. Feelings of anger and shame

Among the most common characteristics of unresolved trauma is the feeling of shame. As a result, many victims of abuse or violent situations project self-destructive emotions onto themselves. For instance, they may feel guilty or helpless for not having acted. Worse still, they may feel that they’re responsible for what happened.

Furthermore, they often feel anger. This is the mark of pain, indignation, and impotence. It’s a state that can explode at any time, making it difficult for the sufferer to develop rewarding social and emotional relationships.

3. The echo of depression that comes and goes

Suffering a childhood trauma increases the risk of developing a depressive disorder in adulthood. These are states of great emotional exhaustion that come and go, outlining persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia). They’re mental conditions that can appear for a few months, subside, and reappear later.

4. Nightmares and sleep disturbances

Nightmares are mechanisms the brain uses to try to process trauma. However, in a nightmare, the sufferer experiences the painful event again, which generates even more physical and mental exhaustion.

Unsurprisingly, dyssomnias or disorders associated with the quantity and quality of night sleep are frequently experienced by trauma sufferers.

5. Hypervigilance

Among the characteristics of unresolved trauma is increased alertness or hypervigilance. This reality is an effect of the impact of the adverse event on the central nervous system. As such, the sufferer has been left in a permanent state of alert and they harbor the feeling that danger is always lurking.

6. Psychosomatic illnesses

Psychosomatic illnesses are physical symptoms directly linked to a specific psychological origin. In fact, many people spend years trying to find the origins of a multitude of physical and organic disorders, for which there are no clear diagnoses.

For example, trauma can lie behind the following problems:

  • Allergies.
  • Migraines.
  • Insomnia.
  • Chest pain.
  • Persistent tiredness.
  • Digestive alterations.
  • Musculoskeletal pain.
  • High blood pressure and elevated cortisol.

Psychological trauma can be addressed and healed in psychological therapy. EMDR therapy (eye movement reprocessing and desensitization) is a widely used therapeutic model in these cases.

7. Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness

“I’m not worth anything”. “I don’t deserve to be loved by anyone”. “I’ll never achieve what want to”. “I’m a failure “. These overwhelming ideas are the voice of unresolved trauma. It undermines the sufferer’s self-esteem, self-image, and sense of competence. Indeed, feelings of uselessness lead the trauma sufferer toward really problematic states. It’s all a result of painful events that haven’t been healed.

8. Avoidant behavior

Avoidance is a mechanism encouraged by fear and anxiety. It prevents the sufferer from having a good quality of life. They end up avoiding and not facing any circumstance that provokes feelings of stress or insecurity. As a result, they might miss out on job opportunities and experience many problems in their personal relationships.

Sad woman looking at the plate evidencing characteristics of an unresolved trauma
Eating disorders often lie behind childhood trauma.

9. Eating disorders (ED)

Aalborg University (Denmark) discovered a significant relationship between traumatic experiences and eating disorders (EDs). This is a correlation that experts have suspected for some time. However, they’ve now established that patients who suffered sexual abuse in childhood have a higher risk of suffering from bulimia, anorexia, etc.

10. Self-injurious behaviors

One of the characteristics of unresolved trauma is self-harming behavior. For instance, the sufferer might cut themselves, pull out their hair, or pick or scratch their skin. By performing this type of behavior, they seek to momentarily release their load of latent anguish. But, in the long term, it leads to extremely debilitating situations.

11. Difficulty handling problems

Life becomes really complicated and even threatening when internal trauma isn’t resolved. The sufferer’s emotions remain on the surface and their brain shows certain alterations in its cognitive functions. Furthermore, they find it difficult to be reflective. Therefore, instead of calmly analyzing their problems, they react impulsively toward them or avoid them.

Dealing with unresolved trauma

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should seek specialized help. Once your trauma, regardless of its origin, is treated, you can recover your quality of life. There are certain science-based approaches that are highly effective. So, you shouldn’t hesitate in relying on the support of your environment and taking the first step toward psychological therapy.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.