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The Ticking Time Bomb of Unprocessed Trauma

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

By itself, trauma is devastating. Trauma originates outside of the survivor who receives it, yet it is passed to the survivor, who bears the aftermath and the consequences. This is unfair to say the least. Sometimes trauma occurs as the result of a natural disaster, or as a direct result of war. Sometimes, however, trauma originates from an abuser, an individual whose bad decision affects the survivor for the rest of their life.

The survivor, who did not cause the trauma, but as a result of being in the recipient role of it, must shoulder the burden of that trauma for the rest of their life. This plays out in the daily aftermath of the trauma in intrusive memories, visceral flashbacks, obliterating nightmares and surges of overwhelming emotions. Each occurrence shreds through the survivor like a hail of bullets strafing their flesh and vital organs. Sensory overload is a common side effect. There are often accompanying physical and mental health symptoms as well, depending on the age of the survivor as opposed to the age of the perpetrator.

None of these are fair.

But wait, it gets even worse.

The abuser, whose decision to act on their own urge and perpetrate the abuse, often gets away without consequence and can abuse again and again. Abusers often silence their victims, passing the blame to them as if they caused the trauma. With shame as an alibi, the survivor accepts this transaction without realizing in the moment (perhaps not until much later in treatment or recovery) that the responsibility lies with the abuser, not the survivor. This is a secondary layer of abuse, wrapped around the initial abuse, which can grow into a quagmire of confusion, anguish and deception that makes recovery from trauma incredibly complicated.

There’s even worse news.

Trauma attacks the survivor. In their body, this presents as physical symptoms. In their mind, this also presents as mental health outcomes the survivor would not otherwise have incurred. And, according to the seminal study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by Kaiser Permanente of more than 17,000 participants, exposure to ACEs have direct correlation to these physical health and mental health outcomes in the lives of trauma survivors.

For more details and specific data on this topic, see ACEs Too High or ACEs Connection. Both websites provide access to the 10 question ACEs study (what the person survived) as well as the 14 question resilience study (how and why the person survived) to better understand how ACEs impact the survivor. Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris’s TedTalk is another incredible source of understanding for how ACEs affect survivors of trauma.

Now for the worst news of all: The Ticking Time Bomb.

The survivor of trauma struggles greatly in the aftermath of abuse. It can last decades for them. An entire lifetime. But trauma doesn’t stop at the physical or mental health level. It actually goes down to the cellular level. According to The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), a pioneer of experts in the trauma treatment and recovery field, trauma that is unprocessed will actually attack the survivor in the DNA of their cells.

Read that again.

In their Treating Trauma Master Series, NICABM details how unprocessed trauma attacks the survivor in their DNA, resulting in the very physical health and mental health outcomes cited earlier. In addition, this can lead to a shorter lifespan, when untreated and unchecked. Specifically, this occurs in the coating around DNA, the telomere (see below for further explanation). The reason this can be so devastating to trauma survivors has to do with self-preservation. In order to survive trauma, a survivor often responds with a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response.

The brain goes haywire. The frontal lobe goes offline. The left and right hemispheres can sever, requiring treatment and recovery work that reconnects the severed halves. Trauma can impact the nonverbal part of the mind, requiring nonverbal/nonlinguistic treatment to heal those particular aspects of trauma (see EMDR, tapping, art therapy, dramatic arts therapy, neurofeedback/biofeedback, music therapy, etc. for appropriate avenues to address these areas of recovery from trauma). The fight or flight response also has chemical responses in the brain: the amygdala floods with adrenaline, while the hippocampus floods with cortisol. This essentially shuts down the memory system of the survivor.

Our bodies are designed to heal themselves while we sleep. That is why eight hours of sleep per night is so essential to the health and wellbeing of individuals. When that individual is a survivor of trauma, their sleep is often disrupted by a plethora of side effects such as insomnia, hyposomnia, sleep apnea, sleep paralysis, nightmares and related symptoms. This further underscores how the aftermath negatively affects a survivor of trauma, and complicates their treatment, healing and recovery. In fact, for most trauma survivors, just getting started in these processes is exponentially challenging, as survivors of trauma often believe they do not deserve treatment, healing or recovery.

During the process the body uses to heal itself, at the DNA level, the two strands of DNA unravel, create a copy of the cell, and ravel back together. The telomere, a coating on the outside of the strands of DNA, hold the two strands together, keeping them from breaking apart in the unraveling and raveling back together process. One can visualize the telomere like the hard-plastic cover at the end of a shoelace. Those caps keep the shoelace from unraveling. Similarly, the telomere coating the DNA hold the DNA strands together, keeping them healthy and alive. Trauma attacks the telomere. The direct affect of trauma attacking the telomere, is that they become shorter, and eventually, this can cause the DNA to break apart during the unraveling/raveling back together process. What occurs then is alarming: the cell where the DNA breaks apart gets sick and dies. This is the specific reason why the survivor of trauma struggles with both physical health and mental health symptoms. They are caused by the trauma attacking the telomere, and those cells where the physical health and mental health symptoms occur.

Trauma attacks the body when it is unprocessed.

Thus, the ticking time bomb of unprocessed trauma can be diffused. This is good news for the trauma survivor, but one which must lead to eventually facing and processing the trauma, the very thing the survivor of trauma strives to avoid at all costs. Unbeknownst to the trauma survivor, until now, is the fact that avoiding the processing of trauma actually leads to further consequences for the survivor.

Survivors of trauma have incredible levels of resilience. When life knocks the trauma survivor down, they get back up. An adage states: “Fall down Seven Times, Get Up Eight.” This is true for trauma survivors. It is an adaptation. Similarly, suppressing the traumatic memory allows the person to survive the trauma, at first. Initially, this is considered an adaptive response to trauma. Dissociation is one example. This can also lead a survivor of trauma to consider addiction as a viable option to stuff or avoid facing the traumatic memory. However, repeating this adaptive response to trauma over time actually becomes maladaptive. What initially helps the person to survive, develops into a barrier that gets in the way of their treatment, recovery and healing.

This is where mindfulness becomes a key factor to begin the healing and recovery process of treatment for a trauma survivor. By staying present to the surfacing traumatic memory, and dealing with it in the moment it occurs, the survivor learns to do the opposite of suppressing and avoiding the trauma. This causes that trauma memory to become processed. Once processed, it no longer attacks the telomere, and the survivor of trauma can reduce the negative outcomes of a reduced lifespan, physical health or mental health outcomes.

In his book, “Waking the Tiger,” Peter Levine details how somatic experiencing can support the processing of trauma memories. Examples include the tools of felt sense and pendulation, two specific tools utilized in the healing and recovery of traumatic memory. For further details, please check out Heidi Hanson’s blog on resiliency building skills to practice for trauma recovery as well as her blog on 13 benefits of pendulation and finally, her blog post on the use of felt sense, which can be effectively used to treat depression, anxiety and other related trauma symptoms.

Please note: sensorymotor psychotherapy has further application for the trauma survivor with Pat Ogden’s “window of tolerance tool,” available on the NICABM website in multiple formats.

Window of Tolerance graphic from NICABM website

In conclusion, trauma is a horrific experience for the survivor. Experiencing the aftermath of symptoms and consequences the survivor did not deserve in the first place is challenging enough. But left unprocessed and untreated, trauma attacks the survivor, delivering even more debilitating consequences. Once the survivor of trauma has reached a point of recovery where they are partially healed, and able to begin the difficult work of turning and facing the unprocessed trauma, they would be wise to act on that sooner than later. They can utilize such tools as pendulation to process the trauma, and move it from its suppressed location in the body, to the long term memory, where it no longer plagues the survivor on a regular basis. It is there they can attain a level of recovery where they have their life back, and they can function without daily intrusive thoughts, memories and physical or mental health symptoms.

Healing is possible. Recovery is possible. Finding the right treatment for the trauma survivor is personal and best led by the trauma survivor herself. It’s time to diffuse the ticking time bomb of unprocessed trauma. You deserve healing and wholeness. You never deserved the consequences your abuser/perpetrator passed off on you, like the world’s worst version of hot potato. You deserve to be free of the consequences of trauma. It’s time to cut the wire.

Getty image by EduardGurevich

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