The word ‘trauma’ is derived from the Greek term for ‘wound’. Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury – and trauma in psychological terms in the emotional response to such an event. Traumatic events certainly include one-off events like natural disasters, terrorist attacks or acts of random violence. Some include exposure to war. But the reality is that around 80% of trauma happens within the family setting. This means if your character has experienced a traumatic event as a child, then it is most likely to be abuse or neglect.
How a trauma affects your character will depend on their temperament and resilience factors, but what it will do is set the stage for unhelpful and counter-intuitive responses to subsequent stress. How?
In our brains we have a fight or flight mechanism. When a threat, danger of some kind, or pain is presented, we may gravitate to one or the other of.these “natural” instinctive responses.
So what does this have to do with childhood trauma? Childhood trauma compromises a child’s sense of safety, because they spent a part of their lives robbed of the guarantee of security and protection. This child needs to be ready to run or hide at times when other children are playing, eating or sleeping. Trigger that too often and for too long, and it never gets a chance to come back to a neutral level.
This means your character will grow up with brain functioning that is likely to be over-active and easily triggered. How that transfers into emotions and behaviours will depend on their own constellation of personality traits and life experiences, but research has found that the following themes will dominate:
Difficulties with Mental Processes
For optimum emotional development, children need the security of attuned relationships free from the extremes of stress and trauma. Compromise, undermine or remove this and they can inherit cognitive difficulties. They may find learning at school challenging, the may find it difficult to remember day to day events. If they have difficulty regulating their emotions, they will struggle to pay attention while in a hyper aroused state. To top it off, if your character experiences flashbacks – overwhelming memories of the trauma/abuse – this will also reduce their capacity to concentrate.
This means your character may be vague or forgetful some of the time, or all of the time. They could be disorganized, they may have dropped out of high school. They may have moments when their job/responsibilities/family becomes overwhelming, or the moment when they have to make a life-changing, split-timing decision, they make the most illogical, unhelpful choice you would expect.
Trauma can have a significant and varied impact on your character’s social functioning. Trauma generally involves a total lack of control over what has happened to us. This means children and adults alike may try to control their environment and the people around to achieve a sense of control. This can range from needy or manipulative behavior, to aggressive and violent behaviour. Couple this with attachment difficulties, and connecting with others can become threatening. They may attempt to control others to reduce the feelings of being out of control, and to try and keep them with connecting with them. Also, they may struggle with relationship skills e.g. reading body language or facial expressions, or may not understand the usual rules of relationships such as sharing or giving.
So your character may have difficulties making friends or keeping friends. Maybe the friends they do make are those with similar problems as their own. Their tendencies to withdrawal or being reactive may strain their romantic relationships.
Difficulties Regulating their Emotions
When it comes to regulation your emotions, there are two ways the body will tend to handle overwhelming, painful and unresolved trauma experiences – hyperarousal or dissociation. Both are intensely painful and uncomfortable emotional states.
Hyperarousal can mean your character has difficulty controlling anger or impulses and maintaining attention. These people will tend to react now, think later and be prone to aggression or flight. Hyperarousal often goes hand in hand with hypervigilance – being psychologically prepared for danger. Unfortunately, these people can often perceive neutral stimuli as threatening and will over-react.
Dissociative people disengage. They may feel distant or numb. Their brain has opted for the ‘freeze’ option and they are looking to make themselves ‘disappear’. This character may present as vague or unreachable. They are often not thinking, nor do they want to. Both of these realities may simultaneously be present compounding the dysfunctional effects.
A Sense of Shame
We’ve all experienced shame (a credit card being declined, over-reacting to a cup of spilt milk…), but in the case of trauma and abuse, those feelings of worthlessness can quickly become a part of a persons identity. Feeling like you’re never good enough, isolated and alone compound all the factors we’ve already discussed. They can limit your character’s ability to feel empathy, they may want to hide. The may become defensive and blame others. Have something happen in life that triggers their sense of shame (e.g. being accidentally or purposely embarrassed), their perception that they’ve failed or done something wrong, and their trigger will be pulled and subsequent reactions will follow.
Adapted: BH / Tamar Sloan