Shadows of the Past: How Unresolved Trauma Shapes Present Behaviours

When trauma is unconscious, it can drive our behaviour without us realising it.

In several of our “Empathy For The Devil” podcasts, we discuss how experiencing childhood trauma can lead to developing addiction and other destructive behaviours in later life. This article aims to shed more light on this difficult condition, and how to break to cycle.

When we think about addiction and destructive behaviours, it's easy to focus on the actions of the person rather than the reasons behind them. In this article, we will discuss how unconscious trauma often subtly (or very obviously) influences our actions, pushing us towards harmful patterns without us even realising it. It’s like there are covert instructions being sent to our subconscious, leading us to behave in ways that we sometimes don’t even understand ourselves. “Arg. Why did I do that AGAIN???!!!!” Sound familiar?

Unresolved trauma is like having deep, unhealed, infected, but invisible wounds—with pus oozing or exploding to the surface occasionally. This unpleasant experience can lead individuals to seek relief through the use of substances that can lead to addiction, or through engaging in other damaging behaviours. Whether it's taking drugs, drinking alcohol, gambling, risky sex, or innapropriate relationships, these actions can serve as temporary escapes from memories and feelings too painful to face.

The grip of these subconscious behavioural drivers is hugely powerful. Understanding their role is crucial in order to begin the journey to recovery and self-awareness. By shining a light on them and understanding more about the “why” instead of just looking at the “what,” we can begin to break the cycle and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Recognising the impact of unconscious trauma is the first step in reclaiming control over our lives

What is Trauma?

Trauma refers to distressing or traumatic events or experiences that are repressed. This means they are not emotionally dealt with when they occur and are stored in our bodies and minds without our active awareness. Like a trapped memory in 3D on an Apple Vision Pro without the price tag.

These experiences, and particularly the way we respond to things that remind us of them, can significantly affect our behaviour, mental health, and overall well-being. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are how we refer to stressful or traumatic events that occur during childhood and can have long-lasting effects on an individual's health and well-being. These can include various types of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunctions such as witnessing domestic violence, parental divorce, or living with someone who has a mental illness or substance use disorder. ACEs are strongly related to the development of a wide range of issues throughout a person's life, including those associated with substance misuse and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

“But it didn’t bother me at the time—so why should it bother me now?” is a classic response that we often hear when first discussing ACEs—and that’s the whole point. Often, if a distressing or traumatic experience “does not bother us,” this really means that the emotions relating to the trauma are being repressed or pushed down, becoming unconscious, and are stored in the mind and body. Saved for later. Like a piece of food stuck between your teeth for so long that it will eventually go rotten, cause an infection, and require anaesthetic and removal.

In the same way, unconscious trauma doesn't just stay hidden; it manifests in various ways. You might find yourself:

Reacting strongly to certain triggers without understanding why.

Experiencing anxiety or panic attacks.

Engaging in self-medication with alcohol, drugs, or other distracting behaviours.

Following destructive patterns without understanding why.

The hidden wounds of trauma can also influence our responses to stress and things that happen in our interpersonal relationships, often driving us toward behaviours that provide temporary relief but cause long-term harm.

The Brain and Body's Response to Trauma

The best way to describe a trauma response is that when we experience an event, our subconscious can make us feel like we are reliving the trapped memory. We then react to the current event as if it were the original one—but without recalling it.

Let's take John, a 28-year-old professional who gets some firm negative feedback from his boss for a mistake. This triggers a trauma response in John whose father often yelled at him and was verbally and sometimes physically abusive. At this moment, John’s subconscious reacts as if he’s reliving that past trauma, making him experience his boss’s criticism as he experienced his father’s behaviour. He might freeze, get extremely anxious, or even feel an overwhelming urge to run away,  reacting not just to his boss but to his unresolved childhood trauma.

This type of response to danger is hardwired into our central nervous system (search for the limbic system if you want a deeper dive) and hasn't changed in thousands of years. It's aimed at keeping us safe and defies rational thought. When you’re "in it," your mind cannot differentiate between past and present. You might as well be swimming in a river and have just spotted a crocodile. The same chemicals and processes are triggered.

Why Trauma Can Lead to Addiction

So when trauma is repressed or left unprocessed, especially during childhood, it can show up frequently in later life. The resulting pain can become so overwhelming that we may turn to substances or addictive behaviours for relief. This isn't just a random choice; there are psychological reasons behind this pattern:

Emotional Numbing: Trauma can make emotions feel unbearable. Drugs or alcohol can numb these feelings, providing a temporary escape.

Recreating Familiar Patterns: Some people subconsciously repeat patterns of their trauma through their addiction. It's a way to recreate situations they know, even if they are harmful.

Seeking Control: Trauma survivors may feel a loss of control over their lives. Addiction can give them a sense of mastery, even if it’s over something destructive. I was a MASTER drinker. It was the thing I was best at. It even gave me my identity.

Coping Mechanism: Chemicals that lead to addiction serve as a coping mechanism to distract from the pain. A way to manage stress and anxiety that comes from unresolved trauma.

Addiction isn’t a choice. It often develops as a response to this deep-seated pain and unprocessed trauma. John, in the example above, might end up in a bar, scoring drugs or acting out sexually in order to ease the strength of what he’s feeling, which will also be compounded by shame at his overreaction. Tomorrow, he will feel even worse - and probably start the cycle again.

Understanding this can help us approach treatment with empathy and insight, focusing on healing the trauma, not just the addiction or other problematic behaviour.

What’s the Solution?

So you’ve told us about the dangers of unprocessed trauma. What does processed trauma look like?

Imagine John, who used to have this extreme response whenever his boss tried to engage with him due to his childhood trauma. After processing this trauma through therapy, John can now differentiate between past and present. Now, when his boss criticises him, he feels a natural but manageable stress response without the overwhelming fear and paralysis of his past reactions. He can calmly listen to the feedback (it was never that bad in the first place!), communicate effectively, and move forward without the heavy emotional baggage. Processed trauma allows John to respond to present situations appropriately, freeing him from the grip of past experiences.

By becoming aware of our unconscious traumas and how they manifest, we can begin to address the underlying issues. This awareness is crucial to healing, developing healthier coping strategies, or seeking appropriate treatment.

As we have mentioned, unconscious trauma doesn't just influence addiction; it can also lead to other destructive behaviours. These behaviours also serve as coping mechanisms, providing a temporary sense of relief or control for individuals dealing with unresolved trauma. Let's explore some significant ways such trauma can manifest in self-harm, recklessness, and eating disorders.

Other Destructive Behaviours Stemming from Unconscious Trauma

Self-Harm and Recklessness

Unconscious trauma can drive people to engage in self-harm and reckless behaviour. These actions might seem illogical to family, friends, and colleagues, but for those affected, they serve as a means to cope with deep-seated pain.

Self-Harm: Individuals might engage in self-harm to feel a sense of control over their pain or to express emotions they can't verbalise. Cutting, burning, or hitting oneself becomes confused with actually providing temporary relief from emotional turmoil. It's a way of “externalising” inner anguish. Ultimately it's a compulsive behaviour with potentially disastrous consequences.

Recklessness: Others might engage in reckless activities such as dangerous driving, extreme sports, or unsafe sexual practices. These behaviours can be an unconscious attempt to escape from emotional pain or to feel alive when numbness takes over.

Recognising these behaviours as cries for help is vital in providing effective support and intervention.

Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues

Eating disorders and body image issues are also common destructive behaviours linked to unconscious trauma. The relationship between trauma and eating disorders can be complex, but understanding it is crucial for effective treatment.

Body Dysmorphia:Trauma, particularly if it involves abuse or neglect, can lead to negative body image and conditions like body dysmorphic disorder. Individuals might obsess over perceived flaws, leading to excessive grooming, exercise, or even surgery—which can become another addiction.

Binge-Eating: On the other end of the spectrum, binge-eating can be a way to numb emotions or to cope with stress. The act of eating becomes a comfort activity, masking the pain of unresolved trauma.

Research and treatment centres often highlight the connection between trauma and eating disorders. For a deeper dive, you might find "Out of My Real Body: Cognitive Neuroscience Meets Eating Disorders" an insightful but academically heavy read.

Realising that unconscious trauma can lead to these harmful behaviours helps in addressing the root causes rather than just the symptoms. By understanding and treating the trauma, individuals can start their journey towards healthier coping mechanisms and a better quality of life. For those seeking help with eating disorders and trauma, please contact us.

Approaches to Healing and Recovery

When dealing with unconscious trauma and its repercussions, finding the right path to healing is essential. There are various strategies out there, ranging from residential treatment and outpatient therapy to self-help techniques. Finding the approach that suits each individual’s unique needs and circumstances is crucial.

Therapeutic Interventions

Different therapeutic methods in an intensive residential, day-care, or weekly setting can help address trauma and manage behavioural responses. Here are some main approaches:

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT helps those dealing with trauma by changing negative thoughts and behaviours.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR processes traumatic memories through guided eye movements, which recreates REM sleep during specialised talking therapy. Highly effective, EMDR was created to reduce the emotional impact of trauma and is effective for PTSD and other trauma-related conditions.

Trauma-Informed Therapy: This therapy understands the impact of trauma and integrates this knowledge into care, creating a safe and supportive environment for healing.

Each of these therapies has its strengths and can be tailored to fit the person's needs. The goal is to provide a compassionate, safe space for individuals to work through their trauma and build resilience. If you would like to begin addressing what you suspect may be unresolved trauma, please contact us.

Self-Help Strategies

For those looking to take control of their healing journey, self-help strategies can be incredibly empowering. Here are some effective approaches:

Mindfulness and Meditation: Practicing mindfulness meditation helps individuals stay grounded in the present moment, reducing the impact of traumatic memories. Techniques like mindfulness meditation have been shown to lower stress and anxiety, providing a sense of calm and clarity.

Breathing Exercises: Simple breathing exercises can help manage immediate stress responses. Techniques such as square or box breathing are proven to reduce anxiety and improve emotional regulation.

Journaling: Writing down thoughts and feelings can be a therapeutic way to process trauma. It allows individuals to explore their emotions safely and privately, providing insights into their behavioural patterns.

Support Networks: Building a support network of friends, family, or support groups can provide much-needed emotional backing. Sharing experiences and connecting with others who understand can significantly alleviate feelings of isolation.

Self-Care Practices: Engaging in activities that promote overall well-being is vital. This includes regular physical exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep. Self-care is crucial in maintaining a balanced life and supporting emotional health

Combining professional therapy with self-help strategies can create a comprehensive approach to healing trauma. By addressing both the mind and body, individuals can find a path to recovery that empowers them to live healthier, happier lives.

The Bottom Line

Unconscious trauma exerts such a powerful influence over our actions, often without our realisation. This hidden trauma can push us towards addiction and other harmful behaviours as a way to cope with deep-seated pain that we don't understand.

Understanding and addressing this unconscious trauma is crucial for breaking free from these destructive patterns. Recognising the role of unresolved trauma allows for more effective interventions and therapeutic approaches. It helps in developing healthier coping mechanisms, ultimately leading to a more balanced and fulfilling life, free from damaging compulsive behaviours.

Acknowledging these hidden drivers is the first step towards healing and reclaiming control over one's behaviour and well-being.

A Final Note

It's important to remember that not every behaviour or action is a sign of deeper issues. This article focuses on situations where behaviours become extreme and unmanageable, affecting emotional well-being, relationships, finances, and overall happiness. We're discussing significant problems, not attributing every minor quirk to past experiences or childhood events. The key is recognising when these behaviours become a threat to daily life and seeking help when they start to cause real, tangible problems.

For help with any of the issues discussed in this article please contact us.

Other blogs

See all