Do you find that you feel different than you did several years ago? Maybe you’re more irritable, maybe more withdrawn, or less motivated, or maybe you don’t like your job as much anymore. You chalk it up to this crazy world we live in and there’s nothing that you can do about it. Furthermore, it is normal and everybody feels this way.
The problem with normalizing these feelings is complicated. First of all, you and the feelings ARE normal, so how can we blame or fix something that is normal? Additionally, if we know that it is normal, then why should we even bother to attempt to make it better?
Maybe we can’t change the situation(s) that have caused these feelings in the first place, but what do these feelings mean and is it “normal” to want to get rid of these feelings? How do we handle these feelings? Why are they so intense in the first place?
One point I must make early in this blog is every single feeling has a purpose; it is there for a reason. There is no feeling that we have that we should “never” feel. I want to stress early on that in no way am I advocating for us to attempt to be “happy” and “motivated” all of the time at the expense of the other feelings.
So why are we feeling so different now than several years ago? What changed? When we look back at the last several years, it can be hard to pinpoint when something changed. Often there isn’t just one situation that made us feel less motivated, more irritable, and more withdrawn.
We almost slide into these feelings. They crept up over time, catching us off guard when we realized the intensity and frequency of them. At first we excuse them – I had a rough day at work; I didn’t sleep well; my kid is having a hard time right now and I’m distracted. Even as we excuse these feelings, they worsen.
Eventually we wind up in a place where we’re wondering if we’re ok. What happened? Am I normal? I don’t like the way I’m feeling. Maybe your family has even noticed the change in you. The truth is, you are normal. There is a good chance you are dealing with cumulative trauma and your brain is working properly when you’re noticing all of these intense feelings.
Before you give up on this blog thinking “I don’t feel like I’ve been traumatized at all, much less several times,” give this blog a chance. Learn about cumulative trauma and its effects on the brain, then make your decision.
It’s true you’re feeling different than you were several years ago, and it’s true you don’t like how you’re currently feeling. However, if we can understand why we’re feeling this way; what is happening in the brain and WHY it is happening that way, we can start to move out of those feelings back to where we were several years ago. When we understand something, that knowledge can fuel our change and it is entirely possible to get out of this rut and feel good about ourselves again.
Keep reading for 3 Signs You May be Suffering from the Effects of Cumulative Trauma and Not Know It
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM INCREASED IRRITABILITY? FATIGUE? CLENCHING TEETH? CRYING SPELLS FOR NO REASON?
The biggest downfall for not working through cumulative trauma is the toll it takes on us physically. This is what we tend to notice first and worst.
Maybe you’re not sleeping as well; maybe you have more racing thoughts; inability to turn your thoughts off at night, maybe you’re more irritable, or not eating as well. The first things we tend to notice when stress builds up too much are the physical signs.
Living this way is frustrating and defeating. It feels like an endless pit that just doesn’t get better. It can feel very difficult to get out of.
WHAT EXACTLY IS CUMULATIVE TRAUMA?
You may be thinking that you have not been harmed or threatened with harm, or been though a natural disaster or car accident, so you don’t have any trauma. If you haven’t had any trauma, how can you possibly have cumulative trauma?
Trauma is not an event, but the body’s REACTION to the event. Just because someone went into a war zone doesn’t mean they come back with PTSD. Just because someone almost died in a car accident doesn’t mean they’ll never get in a car again. The event itself isn’t the problem.
Two people come back from the exact same situation, witnessing the exact same thing and behaving in the exact same way. One person keeps their body calm and focused on what they need to do in this situation, and the other person’s heart rate increases, their blood pressure raises, they can’t think clearly and are just going through the motions of what they need to do.
The first person is less likely to develop PTSD (Not that they won’t, but they are less likely to) than the second person. This is because the brain went into fight flight for the second person but not the first. The brain thought the person was in danger and reacted with fight/flight. Now that they are in a safe place, the brain tries to make sense of that event and help keep the person aware so if ANYTHING like it happens again, you will stay safe.
The first person’s brain, because they were able to stay calm, has a better chance of making sense of the event and putting it to bed so the brain does not have to keep processing it.
If someone has a “traumatic” event happen to them it is 100% fine for them to be upset at first, but “get over it” without developing PTSD. We don’t need to assume that everyone who was raped will go on to have PTSD.
As trauma is not the event, but the body’s reaction to the event, even small things are considered trauma. Whenever the body goes into stress (increased heart rate, blood pressure, difficulty thinking, feeling like you’re spinning in circles, changing in breathing – holding your breath, quicker breathing, etc.
When we go to work and are stressed out day after day, this is cumulative trauma. When we go home and the kids are out of control (again), this is cumulative trauma. When we watch movies or TV shows that get our heart pumping, this is cumulative trauma.
The brain sees what is going on externally, takes that info in and uses it as a current threat to our wellbeing, even if we are watching TV. It is not the amygdala’s job to distinguish real threat from perceived threat. If the body reacts in fight/flight, it is considered trauma.
My blog, “The 4 Biggest Changes to the Brain with PTSD” is a great read to learn about the changes in the brain with PTSD. It will also help you understand the different areas of the brain and how the are impacted by our experiences.
IMPROVED SLEEP, INCREASED MOTIVATION, BETTER FOCUS, ENJOYING TIME WITH THE FAMILY
Although you struggle with sleep, mood and fatigue, you have the potential to get your life back. Just because work is chaotic and home life is overwhelming doesn’t mean you have to have physical ailments.
When we choose to get some help from a therapist, there is a possibility for you to live the life you have been longing for. You don’t have to suffer like this. You can enjoy life, including work, despite it being stressful. You now have the opportunity to understand your symptoms and improve your life.
3 Signs You May be Suffering From Cumulative Trauma and Not Know It
You may be thinking it’s not possible to come back from the work stress and feel competent with an enjoyment of life. You may still be thinking you don’t have cumulative trauma, but are interested in learning more.
The key to achieving life’s goals is to go into it with an open mind and be willing to look at things through a new lense.
Making these changes is not as hard as you think because we do new things every day. Our brain is a wonderful organ which allows us to adapt to new experiences.
Take a look at these 3 signs of cumulative trauma and what you can do about it
- Physical symptoms (high blood pressure, heart problems, chest pain – not due to a heart problem, fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, gastrointestinal problems, aches – yes even aches and pains).
Many people notice physical symptoms and will see their primary doctor about it, and most people will chalk these symptoms up to aging, genetics, or other factors.
There is a reality that aging and genetics play a big role in whether you will develop high blood pressure, heart problems, etc, so it makes complete sense that many people ignore these symptoms as a more holistic problem.
The body is a well-oiled machine that works very nicely as a whole. If one part is not working correctly or is temporarily off, it will have impacts to other parts. The body is one organ between the brain and the toes.
It makes complete sense that you see your primary doctor about these, and the first thing I’d tell you to do if you saw me first is to see your primary doctor. Just because there is a correlation doesn’t mean it IS the correlation.
- Jaded or cynical about many things
Do you find that you are more jaded or cynical than you used to be? Do others tell you that you have a bad attitude? One of the reasons for this cynicism is the brain is trying to protect you. It looks at everything in life and makes the determination that something isn’t good about this situation. From there, it will keep your senses heightened and thus keep you aware to danger.
This happens because the amygdala has decided the world is dangerous and just keep the alarm system on. It takes less energy and less time if you are always in a low grade fight/flight.
If you realize that you just can’t unwind completely and you notice that you struggle to look on the “bright side of life” the possibility is higher that you are struggling with cumulative trauma.
- Anxiety or Depression
In number 2 I mentioned that the amygdala has decided the world is dangerous and it takes less energy and time to stay in a low grade fight/flight. It makes complete sense that you have more anxiety and/or depression.
The symptoms of anxiety are due to the body being in fight/flight. Your body is prepared with the energy it needs to run or fight or scream or whatever you need to do to survive this situation.
When the body is in this activated state and the brain perceives something as dangerous, it will get pulled into the memory web of dangerous situations (it may just be another movie you are watching).
Remember the amygdala does not distinguish between real, perceived, emotional and physical danger. Nor does it distinguish between your story and mine when we’re told something. The amygdala’s sole purpose is prepare the body to stay alive. Once this happens, the signal is sent to other parts of the brain to distinguish real, perceived, emotional, physical dangers and is this actually happening to me or to someone else.
With so many negative events throwing the brain into survival mode, it makes sense that you may even feel some depression.
A key problem with mental health is that we do not have a lot of tools for objective diagnosis. If you are struggling with physical problems, plus you’re more jaded and depressed than you were several years ago, it doesn’t mean you ARE dealing with cumulative trauma.
After you’ve seen your primary care doctor, a few sessions with a therapist could help you determine what is going on and next steps. The therapist will help you evaluate whether you are dealing with the effects of cumulative trauma, whether it warrants a diagnosis and more therapy sessions or whether you just need a few tips to get back to yourself, or whether it is not due to cumulative trauma at all.
Getting yourself back to a place of comfort and balance may not seem top of the list, but it is strong enough that you are here. It can be a scary thought to have to put a lot of work into change, but the effects of improved sleep alone is worth it.
You absolutely can feel like you are in control of yourself and your life and Meg Young, LCSW, PLLC is a great place to help you find answers along the way. Call me at 941-462-4807 to schedule an appointment to start feeling better today!