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Why Trauma Survivors Shouldn’t Think They Are ‘Lazy’

In my experience, emotional and psychological trauma survivors seem to worry more than most people that they are being “lazy” when they aren’t 100% productive. Let’s expose that lie, shall we?

The traumatized brain is anything but lazy. In fact, it is overworked, overstimulated, overactive and overstressed. Many trauma survivors have an enlarged amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. In a survivor, this response goes haywire. It cannot perceive between something that happened in the past with what’s in the present. The brain remembers trauma in the form of flashbacks that constantly recreate the experience. A traumatized brain is always on alert. Hypervigilance is constantly running in the background, assessing the situation and trying to report back to the rational brain what it finds. In order to keep up with everyday situations, it often must work harder than a neurotypical brain without trauma.

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Say someone who has experienced trauma wants to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No sweat, right? However, they will grab the jar of peanut butter and might think about their friend with a peanut allergy who visited last week. Their brain might scold them for not making a better effort to remove all peanut products from the home before their friend visited. They might feel shame for not being a better friend, and noting that if anything did happen to their friend, they surely would be blamed. This would probably trigger an emotional flashback of the way they were constantly blamed for things in the past. Once that has passed, they will grab the bread. They might be thinking about GMOs, and how that has an impact on health. Then, they might think about all the PB&Js they’ve made for their kids. “I fed them junk that probably screwed them up for life…” The trauma brain goes on and on like this in every situation, on every possible topic, relentlessly. Unchecked, it will continue to wreak havoc until the trauma survivor collapses in exhaustion.

This is why people who have experienced trauma often burn out quickly. Their brains are working hard, and yet, survivors seem to carry a ton of guilt over the quantity and quality of their accomplishments. This is the nature of trauma that stems from narcissistic abuse, for example. The brain was tricked into thinking it’s responsible for things it is not. Many survivors had abusers who told them they were lazy, insignificant or downplayed their accomplishments. So naturally, when they struggle to complete tasks due to an overworked brain, those negative messages get reinforced.

We all have goals, and chances are we’d all like to accomplish them sooner than reality permits. For those with traumatized brains, it’s their number one job to heal. Rather than measure life in whatever external measures communicate success, whether that’s the number of laundry piles folded or number of sales closed, think about some internal goals. How many times did I catch my own negative self-talk? How many times did I recognize that my body was tired or hungry, and did I give it what it needed?

Shifting these priorities can make a huge difference, but it’s especially a challenge for those of us who cope by making ourselves too busy to face our trauma. When we take our own busyness away and replace it with really checking in with ourselves, it often means feeling uncomfortable feelings. It means tuning into body, mind and spirit that doesn’t feel so hot. That takes time and energy that our tired brains don’t have a lot of extra juice for.

Sometimes, it seems easier to push through because it numbs us from fully feeling our pain. The result is almost always an inevitable crash. And when we crash, we feel like we are being “lazy.” And so goes the vicious cycle. If this sounds like you, do yourself a favor: Give yourself permission to rest. Give yourself permission to daydream. Do something indulgent that is objectively and truly “lazy,” on purpose. Recognize and reward yourself for all your brain is doing to heal.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash