The Invisible Pain of Trauma

28 July, 2020
Anger, sadness, physical and psychological exhaustion, nightmares... People who've experienced trauma live with an invisible, deep, and brutal pain.

Some people deal with the invisible pain of trauma on their own. Thus, we don’t notice their suffering. However, we know that trauma and adversity leave their mark and can make people’s day-to-day lives very difficult. They might have trouble sleeping, feel tired or angry, have a hard time trusting people again, or feel incapable of dealing with this internal reality.

Trauma experts tend to agree that most people will have to face complicated and adverse situations at some point in their lives. It might be a traffic accident, the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, being the victim of violence or aggression, losing a job, ending a relationship, an illness, etc.

Not dealing with these kinds of adverse events or situations shapes your life in a pretty significant way. Daniel Goleman explained in his book Emotional Intelligence that if you want to overcome these issues, you have to practice “emotional re-learning”. It consists of restarting yourself, in every sense of the word. Thus, you have to adjust your thoughts, emotions, and even your behaviors.

This is no easy endeavor, there’s no doubt about that. People who’ve experienced trauma usually have to continue to live their lives as if nothing happened. It’s not like breaking a bone and getting paid sick leave. No one can see your injury, but the pain is intense. When you’re in this situation, it often seems like there’s no possible solution. But don’t lose hope. Remember that it’s possible to heal from trauma.

Anatomy of pain that just won’t go away

At what point does an intense experience become a trauma? When is a person susceptible to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? It might surprise you to learn that there’s no standard answer to these questions. This is because each individual experiences and processes these situations in a unique way.

Experts in the field, such as Lloyd Sederer, the Chief Medical Officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health, tell us that the risk of becoming traumatized depends on three factors:

  • Degree of exposure to the trauma. For example, children who have experienced neglect or abuse will suffer deeper trauma than an adult who suffers from some kind of loss or witnesses an accident.
  • Vulnerability. Genetically, some people are more vulnerable to the effect of an adverse event than others.
  • Available resources. A determining factor is whether you have a social support network or not. It’s also important to mention psychological resources. Having experienced a traumatic event in the past and successfully overcoming it makes you more resilient for other situations that might arise.

The most common symptoms of trauma

In a 24-year study conducted by Carol E. Franz and Michael J. Lyons at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the researchers determined the most common symptoms among adults in relation to the trauma. In other words, those that turn individuals into traumatized people.

  • Insomnia and nightmares.
  • Memories always focus on traumatic events. Thus, experiencing constant flashbacks is common.
  • Anxiety and stress.
  • Feelings of anger, rage, and irritation.
  • Feeling guilty.
  • Physical exhaustion or even some psychosomatic illnesses.
  • Problems trusting people again.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • A negative self-opinion.
  • Fearful, always defensive, and constantly believing that something bad is going to happen.
A sunset on a rocky beach.

Narrative therapy for the invisible pain of trauma

Narrative therapy has yielded good results in the treatment of trauma. This approach, developed in the 70s and 80s by therapists Michael White and David Epston, has been slowly improving and evolving. One interesting strategy for dealing with trauma that has emerged from this approach is Narrative Exposure therapy from Thomas Elbert, Maggie Schauer, and Frank Neuner.

Narrative exposure therapy has the following goals:

  • To help the person narrate their story in order to give it some kind of meaning. The therapist also trains the patient to discover their resilience to be able to relieve some of their suffering.
  • Accepting. Describing the pain and accepting it as part of the individual’s life story. The therapist also helps people restore their dignity and empower themselves.
  • Studies such as this one from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, explain that narrative therapy is useful for reconstructing a sense of self and identity. These two things can become very fragmented after traumatic events.

In conclusion, there are resources available to people who are dealing with the invisible pain of trauma. They can learn ways to deal with their suffering that allow them to rebuild their strength, dignity, and courage.

But it isn’t a quick nor simple process, as reinterpreting traumatic events of the past involves mobilizing some very intense emotions.

Above all, dealing with past trauma means having the strength to take responsibility for your re-birth, improvement, and progress. Although it’ll take you some time to find your place in the world again, you can do it.

  • Crossley, ML (2000). La psicología narrativa, el trauma y el estudio de la identidad propia. Teoría y psicología , 10 (4), 527–546. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354300104005
  • GOLEMAN, Daniel. El reaprendizaje emocional y la superación del trauma. En: La Inteligencia Emocional
  • Krystal, H. (1993). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease181(3), 208–209. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-199303000-00017