One of the assessment forms I always have my clients fill out in the beginning is a questionnaire to assess their level of Adverse Childhood Experiences. These questions will give me an insight into difficult, perhaps even traumatic events, they have experienced. Of course, the questionnaire does not cover everything and I think there are a lot of other questions that could be included, such as did you ever experience racism or discrimination as a child, did a household member including yourself end up in the foster care system, did you experience bullying outside of the home on a regular basis, etc. ? But it’s at least a good start for trying to understand how much trauma someone has gone through as a child and how much stress has built up into their system since then.
Childhood trauma sets the stage for how we interact with the world, our beliefs about ourselves and others, and what is possible. The effects of trauma are not always visibly evident, they are invisible wounds that we carry around. Trauma does not come out until we are challenged or challenge ourselves in some way.
Success can be very triggering. One of the effects of trauma is anxiety. Anxiety tells us to avoid certain situations and play it safe. It’s a protective mechanism to help us avoid further damage. The problem with that is that anxiety keeps us from doing the things that will actually help us feel better in the long run, and reduce our sensitivity to threat.
Progress means change, and change can feel very scary to our autonomic nervous system. Many traumas are a result of some kind of transition – parents leaving a child, a robber entering a home, losing a beloved friend or family figure, being sent away, etc. It’s no wonder that even little transitions can seem huge in our minds and our bodies, even if we logically know that a transition now is normal and safe – like a change in furniture, change in plans, or a new person in our life. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is a popular saying among somatic-based therapists. Transition, even positive ones, can feel dangerous to our minds because it has become linked with trauma.
So if you start to work on a goal, and you suddenly encounter that dreaded brick wall, take some time to assess the situation. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does this situation remind you of a situation you may have faced in the past?
- Is there some immediate change or transition that may have affected your ability to see progress or feel safe?
- Have there been any other stressors lately that may have compounded your ability to reach your goals and feel good about yourself?
- Does your reaction to a challenge, or even positive signs of progress, seem out of proportion, or uncharacteristic of your normal way of reacting?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be seeing the effects of hidden trauma. It is good to acknowledge what is really going on in order to be able to move past it. Even though symptoms of trauma can seem permanent, they don’t have to be. As we identify the problem and connect with others who understand, we are able to come up with our own solutions. In doing so, we strengthen our ability to feel safe, to pass through any challenges that come our way, and feel more connected to others and ourselves. And success seems a lot more possible after all.