12 Causes and Signs of Trauma That You May Not Even Recognize
Those daily aches and pains could trace back to earlier life experiences.
Warning: The below story discusses trauma and PTSD.
Like many notions of mental health issues, trauma is often recognized through its most obvious and severe cases. For example, we typically associate PTSD with veterans of war, and when we think of traumatic events, we often picture physical assaults or car crashes. The idea of what trauma looks like is also often limited to a few common examples, like flashbacks and hyperarousal. While these are all legitimate causes and signs of trauma, there are many more (i.e. abusive parents and stomach issues) that often get left out of the conversation, which can keep people from recognizing symptoms in both themselves and others.
"Trauma is much more common than people think," trauma psychologist, Karol Darsa, Psy.D., tells HelloGiggles. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about "half of all U.S. adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives"—but the way that trauma manifests and the causes behind it can vary greatly. Signs of trauma can show in a wide range of physical and emotional responses, and it can result from sustained stressors, in addition to single events.
Below, learn some of the lesser-known yet common causes and signs of trauma, according to mental health experts.
Common causes of trauma:
1. Childhood neglect.
Having parents who are emotionally or physically absent during childhood can have long-lasting effects on someone's life. "Anytime you have parents who were not really in tune with you, weren't attached to you, and weren't taking care of your emotional needs as well as physical needs, that could be very traumatic for a child," Dr. Darsa says.
As Michelle Halle, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, writes on her website, when a parent neglects a child's needs, "This thwarts development of the child's self-esteem, impairs their ability to form relationships, and makes it challenging for them to seek the help of others when they need it."
2. Child-parent role confusion.
Anytime that a child is "taken out of childhood" and forced to act more of a parent role, this can be traumatizing, Dr. Darsa says. While all parents need a little help sometimes, relying on children to fulfill emotional needs or assist with parent-like duties—like caring for younger siblings or preparing meals—can have damaging effects. "This happens a lot if a couple is not getting along well, for instance," Dr. Darsa says. "Whatever they're lacking from their partner, or if they're a single parent, then they go to the child and they look for that from the child—and that is a huge burden on a child."
3. Angry or emotionally abusive parents.
While physical abuse is more commonly recognized as a cause of trauma, emotionally abusive or volatile parents can be just as traumatizing, diminishing a person's self-esteem, and heightening the nervous system.
As Dr. Darsa explains, constant emotional abuse can hyper-activate a person's fight-or-flight response and can last long after the abuse is over. "If a child is constantly watching to see how the parent is going to be, like, 'What kind of parent am I going to get now? Is it the loving parent I'm going to get today? Or is it the angry parent or mean parent?' that's a very traumatic situation," she says.
4. Sick or dying parents.
Dr. Darsa also notes how traumatizing it can be for children to grow up with parents who are chronically ill. She says this largely stems from children having to deal with the fear of losing a parent at any moment. In situations where a parent is chronically ill, the child also might take on more parent-like duties, which can lead to compounding forms of trauma.
5. Racism and discrimination.
Board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD—who specializes in depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, and PTSD—previously told HelloGiggles about the long-form, traumatizing effects of racism on the body and mind. For people of color experiencing and living amongst systemic racism and violence, the feeling of living constantly under threat can lead to trauma and PTSD. "It's like the threat is everywhere and anywhere and going to jump out from the bushes and get you," she says. "And I think that feeling of being so unsettled, of feeling like you don't know how a trip to the store is going to end for you, is very mentally destabilizing."
6. A global pandemic.
As Dr. Darsa explains, survival is the number one instinct, we, as humans, have—and "when that's threatened, it is extremely traumatic for a lot of people." With the constant anxiety around getting sick, fear of dying from COVID-19, and hearing about so many others losing their lives, Dr. Darsa says it's absolutely fair to say that the pandemic has been a source of trauma for many.
The isolation, inability to leave the house, overall lack of control, and heavy grief around the pandemic have also led to the exacerbation of a number of past traumas, too. "There's a lot of powerlessness in the pandemic because it's out of our hands, so people are coming out with more PTSD symptoms," Dr. Darsa says about the trauma clients she works with. These observations are also supported by psychologists from the Journey Psychotherapy Center who predict that 15% of people will suffer from PTSD after the pandemic.
A 2021 study also showed that about a third of those who were hospitalized with COVID-19 (between April 21 to October 15th, 2020) were diagnosed with PTSD.
Common signs of trauma:
1. Chronic pain.
While trauma can be released as an emotional response because of a stressful event or situation, it can also manifest in physical symptoms. Dr. Darsa says chronic pain—whether that's back pain, neck problems, muscle pain, or something else—is a common one. In fact, several studies have researched the connection, and one 2014 study, involving 194 PTSD patients, found that 20 to 30 percent also suffered from chronic pain.
"During any traumatic situation, the body usually sort of tightens it up as a protection," she explains. This can be especially true if someone has trauma related to a physical attack or verbal violence. Even when a specific threat has passed, "When it's chronic trauma [trauma arising from prolonged abuse], and when the person is constantly watching their back so to speak, the muscle tends to live in that tight space," Dr. Darsa explains.
2. Stomach issues.
Finding the source of stomach issues can feel impossible, but several studies show that trauma should be added to the list of suspects. A 2011 study by the Mayo Clinic, which interviewed 2,600 people, found that people with irritable bowel syndrome had a much higher likelihood of having experienced any kind of trauma. Another 2011 review, which studied stress-induced brain-gut dysfunction, found that people who suffered severe abuse tended to show up with a higher likelihood of gastrointestinal disorders in general.
While more research is needed to study the exact links between trauma and the gut, stress is known to have effects on the gastrointestinal system. According to the American Psychological Association, stress can affect "brain-gut communication," triggering pain, bloating, other gut discomforts, and bowel issues.
3. Chronic headaches.
Just as trauma can be linked to chronic pain in the body, it can also be a factor in those experiencing chronic headaches or migraines. A 2015 study found a correlation between adverse childhood experiences—like emotional neglect, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse—and migraines. The odds of getting migraines also reportedly increased when someone had experienced more than one adverse childhood experience.
Although more research is needed to understand why this happens, it's likely linked to the experience of repeated stress, which is one of the most recognized triggers of both headaches and migraines.
4. Bad posture.
Dr. Darsa also says she looks to posture as a sign of trauma. Of course, not everyone who slouches does so because of negative life experiences, but she says that a collapsed posture can be a result of someone who has felt chronically neglected or burdened in their lifetime. "You can sort of see that [trauma] manifested in their body, in their back, the way they carry themselves," she adds.
Recovery coach and psychotherapist Amanda Robins supports this idea on her website, writing that it's often a result of shame from emotional abuse and that "people experiencing shame will often bow their heads, hunch their shoulders and lower their eyes."
5. Addiction issues.
Dr. Darsa says that addiction issues, whether that be substance abuse, gambling, shopping, or something else, can be a result of trauma. "Usually, underneath there is a trauma—the person is trying to get rid of their memory or the feeling that they had to experience as a young person and it turns into an addiction," she explains.
6. Relationship troubles.
According to a report by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, "living through traumatic events may result in expectations of danger, betrayal, or potential harm within new or old relationships." Trauma survivors may also have their sense of self affected, feeling shameful and unlovable, the report explains. All of these responses can make it harder for trauma survivors to build strong, healthy relationships and trust in a partner. If someone is repeatedly finding that "they can't maintain healthy relationships with friends or romantic partners," Dr. Darsa says this may be a sign of past trauma.
Because the causes and signs of trauma can range so much from person to person, it can be hard to recognize what's really going on. That's why Dr. Darsa encourages people to constantly self-assess their behavior to see if they can trace it back to a past experience. So, if you're having a strong emotional response to something (like a trigger), she would encourage you to ask yourself, "Does that remind me of something else from my childhood or my past?"
In the same way, if you're having adverse physical symptoms but can't figure out the reason, it's also worth considering if it may link back to a traumatic experience. "And if it does, then the original issue should be worked on," Dr. Darsa says. Seeking out professional help can be a great way to start confronting and working on traumas. Read here for affordable mental health care options and how to access them.
If you or someone you care about is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. You can also chat with a counselor online here. All services are free and available 24/7. Additionally, here are ways you can help loved ones struggling with depression.