What is unaddressed trauma and how does it affect us?

News & Events

By Barbara Kohlenberg, Ph.D.

Man and women embracing

The majority of people have had traumatic experiences that impact who they are and how they respond to their lives. Losses due to death or relationships ending for any reason, natural disasters, betrayals, assaults, murders, shootings, intentional and accidental traumas all are impactful and shape who we are as people.

People process trauma in ways that are both common and unique. Having a community—friends, loved ones, a spiritual community, family—to gain strength from is very helpful. Having what one needs—a phone, housing, food, safety—after a trauma is also essential and are important aspects of how a community can respond to trauma.

Trauma that is denied by others, such as not being believed if reporting a trauma or being too afraid to come forth with the information, such as a child not feeling safe telling an adult about sexual abuse, likely would make that trauma much worse for the person. This then becomes a wound that is surrounded by shame, and it can fester. Trauma that is avoided, such as by drinking or using drugs to numb the pain, can also predict poorer functioning later on.

What are the symptoms of unaddressed trauma?

If in life one has "blind spots," a lack of awareness about why current circumstances are painful and are not working, it could be that there are parts of one's past that are out of awareness and it might be useful to remember painful parts of the past so that they can inform one's present. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes symptoms in the here and now such as dissociation, flashbacks and nightmares, can also be treated by helping people remember and be exposed to certain aspects of the trauma.

How can you help yourself or someone else who is exhibiting symptoms of trauma?

If you are struggling with living with trauma, it is very important to know that there is help out there. There are treatments, well established by research, focused on how to cope with traumatic memories. Exposure therapies (in the context of a safe therapy relationship, talking through and remembering painful memories) are the gold standard for helping people live rich and fulfilling lives even when terrible things have happened.

What happens to individuals and communities when trauma is ignored?

It is very important that people in our communities acknowledge trauma when it happens. Being present to pain and suffering, feeling what there is to feel about it, and coming together is an essential part of being human. Shoving trauma under the rug is not helpful; denying it is not helpful. However, it is also not necessarily helpful to force someone to confront a trauma that they are working through in their own way.

It is important, I believe, that the values of a community are stated loud and clear when a traumatic injustice occurs, such as hate crimes, assaults and gun violence. It is important that we commit to being a healthy, nurturing, effective community that stands together and works to prevent these traumas, as well as offer support to all who are impacted. I believe that when our hearts are broken because of human cruelty, and we feel lost and alone, that we can also continue to reach toward human connection and love, and find that such treasures still exist even when one's heart feels shattered.

Barbara Kohlenberg, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Reno. She is a professor in the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Family and Community Medicine and is a clinical psychology graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Her interests include functional analytic psychotherapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, relationship-focused and acceptance-based therapy, stigma, shame, intimacy, trauma, addiction, values and interpersonal problems.

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Tuesday October 1, 2019 @ 8:00 AM