We know that trauma can create all kinds of havoc in the body—making us more susceptible to physical ailments like colds, flu, and COVID-19; paving the way for longer-term illnesses, like chronic fatigue syndrome; even messing with our hormones when past stress keeps triggering the release of cortisol over time. In cases where the effects of trauma are ongoing, such as with PTSD, it can feel as if the harm never quite ends. Trauma denial can be just as harmful, if not more damaging.
HOW TRAUMA IMPACTS THE BRAIN
Trauma also rewires the brain, as certain parts of the brain, like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are crucial in how traumatic experiences are processed and stored. The brain can recall traumatic experiences to later alert us to danger or trigger our flight-or-fight response—that’s a good thing. But other brain adaptations can be less useful or healthy, such as when people bury their traumatic experiences so deeply that they have seemed to disappear.
While this sounds like it might be a positive, avoidance of trauma, in some cases, can create bigger problems. When our trauma hasn’t actually gone anywhere, when it’s still alive and well in the mind and/or body, it can emerge through insidious behaviors that create chaos in our lives, and in ways that we may not even be aware of. This is the potentially dangerous downside of trauma denial.Avoidance of trauma can create bigger problems. When trauma is still alive and well in the mind and/or body, it can emerge through insidious behaviors that create chaos in our lives, and in ways that we may not even be aware of. Click To Tweet
WHAT IS TRAUMA DENIAL?
Just as the brain helps our survival as humans by storing information and kicking off the fight-or-flight response, the brain sometimes “protects” us from past traumatic events by suppressing those memories, leading to trauma denial. One study that examined the link between childhood trauma and suicidality reported that just as some people use drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma, others use denial—the refusal to acknowledge (even to themselves) that it ever happened. This protective measure can end up backfiring by morphing into a more serious concern, such as depression, and can prevent true healing from taking place.
There is also the phenomenon of trauma minimization. In a world of shocking tell-alls and media exposés, it can be tempting to think that one’s experience isn’t as awful as others’ and therefore that it’s not worthy of being addressed. But just because you don’t think your trauma is “that bad,” it doesn’t mean your experience is not important. Mental health experts have long acknowledged that trauma is not about what happened to someone, but how that person experiences and internalizes it. Keep in mind that trauma may also stem from things not happening—as would occur in the case of childhood emotional neglect, for example. A lack of care can be just as damaging as more glaring examples of trauma, such as physical abuse.
SIGNS OF TRAUMA DENIAL
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that human trauma responses run the gamut. They can include high-risk or self-harming behaviors, disordered eating, or compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overworking, to name a few. Blocking out trauma can also lead to all kinds of negative effects, from substance abuse to suicidal thoughts and sleep disturbances. When trauma denial is in effect, many may have a sense of dissociation—marked by feelings of numbness or having no emotion—and avoid thinking or talking about past hurtful events.
Trauma denial isn’t all negative: One study centering around minimization and denial of childhood trauma notes that “positivity bias” among healthy individuals—which related to traumatic childhood experiences being underreported—can be “a typical cognitive mechanism among healthy individuals in Western cultures, serving a purpose to preserve mental health” and providing an important function within “psychological self-preservation.” Yes, maintaining mental well-being can include viewing our lives and families in a more positive light. But when more serious memories are getting repressed, the resulting daily disturbances can prevent us from living our best lives.
HOW TO HEAL FROM TRAUMA DENIAL
When repressed trauma is beginning to backfire in your daily life—emerging as maladaptive behaviors like self-harm or addictions, or creating ongoing stressors in the form of intrusive memories (flashbacks) or nightmares—it’s important to seek help. SAMHSA notes that techniques such as talk therapy, meditation, exercise, mindfulness, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or more intensive inpatient treatment programs can be helpful.
I’ve been there, and it’s not easy. As I described in my book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, I ran for a long time, too, hiding behind masks and denying my tumultuous past. But all it got me was depression, anxiety, and a bunch of physical ailments, including three bouts of thyroid cancer starting in my early 20s. For some of us, trauma can feel like the elephant in the room—the hulking monster we refuse to face. Luckily, in today’s world, people are more willing than ever to talk about their experiences, helping normalize these issues for others, and more therapists and medical professionals are becoming familiar with trauma-informed treatment approaches.
In the end, I found from personal experience that it is often best to bravely face the trauma that’s affecting you, ask for help, and share your pain with others—only then you can start to heal. You can even turn that trauma around and use it to help others who have been in similar positions. The possibilities are limitless when we wrestle with our deepest fears and most persistent demons. If you think you might be living under the shadow of trauma denial, I encourage you to reach out for help from a mental health professional to evaluate your options and get started on the path of healing.
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