As a researcher specializing in trauma, I often hear myths about how trauma can affect people and present itself. Here are six behaviors “high-functioning” trauma survivors will understand deeply:
Being calm isn’t a sign that the trauma never happened. Many times, it is a sign that the trauma was so severe the person had to dissociate to survive. It can also be a sign of resilience and desensitization after enduring too many traumas.
Complex trauma survivors and trauma survivors in general can dissociate during and after the traumatic experience. Their nervous system goes into survival mode and internal resources are used to survive the traumatic event rather than process or heal from it. As a result, they may feel detached from their own bodies or environment. Their brain has essentially tried to protect them from the full horror and impact of the traumatic event. For complex trauma survivors, this dissociation can be a way of life as the traumas they’ve endured tend to be ongoing and persistent. Emotional numbness and the diminished capacity to experience positive emotion are common. This is why people often remark in surprise when it comes to seemingly “calm” trauma survivors who may be in a state of shock or seem centered and in control. Trauma survivors can build up the psychological resilience akin to a sumo wrestler when it comes to life’s harshest adversity. They can build resources, coping strategies, and learn strategies that help them become resilient to traumas over time. They can also become desensitized to chaos, especially if their nervous system was dysregulated by trauma early in life. However, healing often challenges survivors to re-sensitize themselves to some level of pain so they do not have to continue to tolerate injustices.
High-functioning trauma survivors can be successful overachievers. That doesn’t mean they don’t tackle internal dilemmas every day. In fact, achieving safety can unravel a whole new level of triggers.
Many high-functioning trauma survivors can achieve success and happiness. They can pursue their goals and dreams with fierce determination and can be highly accomplished, especially if their trauma is channeled as a catalyst for thriving. Yet that doesn’t mean their lives go on trigger-free. Triggers are a part of everyday life and can be a challenging, overwhelming part of the healing journey. In fact, achieving a certain level of safety often compels the brain to finally allow some of the traumas experienced to come to the surface because now it finally has the resources to address it whereas before it had to reserve its energy in keeping you alive and safe. That is why you may notice intrusive thoughts, memories, and flashbacks come back with an intensity in times of prolonged peace. Your brain survived a war zone. Now that it’s no longer in danger, it decides it’s ready for some processing and healing.
Sometimes a hypervigilant way of seeing the world isn’t “just” a trauma response but a highly sophisticated radar and system of intuition.
Trauma survivors are accustomed to society dismissing and minimizing their intuition, instincts, and ability to discern and identify toxic people and patterns as a “trauma response.” However, psychologists and researchers note that children who grow up in abusive homes can develop a finely tuned radar for danger. For example, Frankenhuis and colleagues (2013) reviewed research that showed that people with histories of childhood abuse have an enhanced ability to detect threats in their environment and an increased capacity for improved memories specifically when identifying relevant aspects and cues in their environment that point toward danger. This ability surpassed that of their non-traumatized peers. As a result of their “training” in reading the emotional states of others and learning to anticipate incoming danger, high-functioning trauma survivors may be able to pinpoint subtle clues and warnings well ahead of time, especially in the toxic people they encounter. The type of trauma endured also matters: while a combat veteran may have to adapt or unpack triggers relevant to a war zone that are no longer suitable or as relevant at home, a domestic violence or sexual assault survivor may still have valuable “learned” cues of danger that can help her anticipate similar predators in the future. It’s important to process your traumas with a trauma-informed mental health professional and identify whether or not you are experiencing triggers from the past that are unrelated to the present or whether your brain and body remember significant signals of danger that can help you recognize red flags in the present and predict disaster in the future.
How a trauma survivor reacts in one situation may not be how they react in another. This can be due to the situation at hand and different “Inner Parts.”
Trauma survivors themselves may feel especially baffled by the fact that they react in disparate or contradictory ways even across similar situations. That is because trauma creates fragmentation and can result in many different “inner parts.” One inner part may represent the wounded child who experienced the earliest traumas, while another part may be a “fighter” and defender who defends itself against anyone who threatens it. In one situation, a trauma survivor might fight back or leave quickly while in another they might “fawn” and people-please or freeze. Each situation can bring out a different “inner part” and trauma response especially for the complex trauma survivor. Some trauma responses are also more suitable for certain situations – for example, a trauma survivor who usually fights back or flees may find themselves fawning when they encounter a specific predator who they fear retaliation from. This is a strategic survival mechanism and should not be judged. Trauma can also cause a disconnect among emotions, thoughts, memories, sensations, and images; that is why it can be so difficult to create coherent narratives about the traumatic experience until one processes it. Depending on the person and situation and your unique trauma history, you might find yourself reacting very differently across various circumstances.
People are not “perfect” victims when they’ve been traumatized. They won’t always say or do the right thing.
The brain has unique and beautiful mechanisms for surviving trauma, but none of them are perfect nor should trauma victims be expected to be perfect. The ways trauma affect our brains can be complex and nuanced and differ from person to person, but generally speaking, trauma can dampen the parts of our brain that deal with decision-making, learning, memory, reasoning, attention and focus while sending our fight-or-flight responses into overdrive (or alternatively, mobilizing differently through freezing). While early childhood trauma survivors can have certain enhancements in these aspects specifically when it comes to threat-related cues, these parts of their brain may still be affected when it comes to other contexts or situations and are generally affected in trauma survivors overall. Trauma survivors are human and fallible just like anyone else, no matter how high-functioning. For example, you may have gone a few healthy years avoiding dangerous people. However, after enduring a painful traumatic or life-threatening experience, you may find yourself attached or trauma bonded to a dangerous manipulator shortly after because you sought out relationships as a source of comfort. Or you may have lashed out at bullies or abusers due to chronic maltreatment in ways society didn’t understand and shamed. If so, give yourself grace. You deserve your own compassion. Most of the people judging you likely wouldn’t have been able to deal with the same adversity you did without reacting similarly. You never deserved the trauma you went through, and you don’t deserve any judgment or shame from anyone who has not lived your story.
Survival and healing don’t always look the way you think it should. Sometimes survival is enough.
It’s true that high-functioning trauma survivors can meet all the milestones of what is seen as a thriving healing journey: in fact, in some cases they can be “wired” to be successful because they’ve learned how to tackle challenge after challenge using their resourcefulness, creativity, and natural talents. Thriving can be defined in many different ways and be multifaceted. Healing can look different for everyone and is personal to every survivor. All trauma survivors should celebrate these milestones, strengths, and successes while also allowing themselves room for safe “play” and relaxation. They can enjoy what they’ve achieved while also permitting themselves room to grow, make mistakes and also acknowledge their humanity. You are allowed to rest and experience the safety and innocence of a childhood you may not have experienced. You don’t have to do it all, even if you’ve exceeded your own expectations. Sometimes surviving is enough. You are enough.