Trauma Symptoms - Recognising Trauma

The first symptoms of trauma that develop, as explained by Peter A Levine, are hyperarousal, constriction, dissociation (including denial), and feelings of helplessness (freeze response). These are discussed more in the next chapter, 'the natural response to stress'. However, Levine explains that there are other symptoms, that stem from the trapped energy created by the above four 'core' symptoms. These may include:

  • hypervigilance (being 'on guard' at all times)
  • intrusive imagery or flashbacks
  • extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  • hyperactivity
  • exaggerated emotional and startle responses
  • nighmares and night terrors
  • abrupt mood swings: e.g. rage reactions or temper tantrums, shame
  • reduced ability to deal with stress (easily and frequently stressed out)
  • difficulty sleeping

(You are reading part six of the book summary: Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma by Peter A Levine...)

An interesting point to note here, which is not part of Peter A Levine's book, is that similar symptoms may also develop for purely nutritional reasons, i.e. mineral and other nutrient deficiencies, heavy metal toxicities, and food and chemical insensitivities. The effects of these may sometimes be severe. William Philpott explains this thoroughly in the book: Brain Allergies.

Are more mental problems caused by trauma or by nutritional problems is an interesting question. Perhaps they are intermingled, and perhaps resolving one helps to resolve the other? Interestingly, however, both approaches offer very physical ways to resolving emotional and behavioural problems.

Peter A Levine also lists in his book specifically the symptoms of trauma in children. He also keeps making the points that trauma symptoms often don't develop immediately, but may take six weeks to 18 months to develop, and often also years or even decades. These reactions can suddenly be triggered by seemingly insignificant events.

"Post-traumatic symptoms don't develop overnight. It takes months for the freezing reaction to become symptomatic and chronic. If we know what to do, we have ample time to resolve the unfinished physiological portions of our reactions to an overwhelming event before they become entrenched as symptoms. Most of us either don't know what to do, or may not even realize that there is anything to be done. Many people walk away from overwhelming events carrying a large, unpalatable portion of unresolved trauma with them." - Peter A Levine, p. 105, Waking the Tiger
"People often feel disembodied for months or years following surgery employing general anesthesia. The same results can appear after seemingly minor accidents, falls, and even deep betrayals and abandonment. Although we don't have the language for it, many of us sense traumatic injury at the soul level."

- Peter A Levine, p. 59, Waking the Tiger

"Traumatic anxiety displays itself as nervousness, fretting and worrying, and in appearing to be 'high-strung'. The sufferer frequently experiences panic, dread, and highly overdramatized reactions to trivial events. These maladies are not permanent fixtures of the personality, but are indicative of a nervous system temporarily, though perpetually, overwhelmed." - Peter A Levine, p. 164, Waking the Tiger
trauma symptoms
"Unfortunately, when we live with the aftereffects of trauma, simply avoiding stressful situations is not sufficient to prevent the breakdown of the defense systems. If we tiptoe around arousal, our nervous systems will create their own. When this happens, we cannot rebound from the impacts of everyday frustrations as esily as we could if our nervous systems were free to function fully and normally. Ordinary circumstances can disturb the delicate organization of energy in the traumatized individual's nervous system." - Peter A Levine, p. 151, Waking the Tiger
"Unresolved trauma can keep us excessively cautious and inhibited, or lead us around in ever-tightening circles of dangerous re-enactment, victimization, and unwise exposure to danger. [...]

"Compulsive, perverse, promiscuous, and inhibited sexual behaviors are common symptoms of trauma - not just sexual trauma. The effects of trauma can be pervasive and global or they can be subtle and elusive. When we do not resolve our traumas, we feel that we have failed, or that we have been betrayed by those we chose to help us. We need not blame this failure and betrayal on ourselves or others. The solution to the problem lies in increasing our knowledge about how to heal trauma."
- Peter A Levine, p. 32, Waking the Tiger

Denial as Trauma Symptom

Denial is a type of dissociation, which is one of the four first symptoms of trauma to develop, according to Peter Levine. The other three are: hyperarousal, constriction and feelings of helplessness. Not everyone develops all these symptoms, as I understand, but one or more may be developed as first signs of trauma.

"Reversing the effects of either denial or amnesia takes a great deal of courage. The amount of energy that is released when this happens can be tremendous and should not be minimized or underestimated."
- Peter A Levine, p. 165, Waking the Tiger

Peter Levine recommends always a gradual approach to releasing trauma and also seeking help from a professional if the process seems too overpowering. Periodically shifting focus to a happy, relaxing memory will also often help to release these energies slower.

"Denial is probably a lower-level energy form of dissociation. The disconnection is between the person and the memory of or feelings about a particular event (or series of events). We may deny that an event occurred, or we may act as though it were unimportant. [...] ... we may act as though nothing has happened because the emotions that come with truly acknowledging the situation are too painful. Then suddenly, we may be consumed with intense emotion. Denial gives way to fear, anger, sorrow, or shame as the feelings once again integrate and the energy that has been bound up in the denial is released. However, when the bound-up energy is too great and the feelings too painful, denial can become chronic - a 'set in stone' insistence that an event never happened." - Peter A Levine, p. 141, Waking the Tiger

In addition to denial, amnesia can also block the memory of a traumatic event. I am not sure whether Peter Levine thinks amnesia is a form of denial, or whether these are two separate things.

Pathology as a Trauma Symptom

"In pathology, the organism will enlist the felt sense to experience any thought, feeling, or behavior that it can use in its effort to contain the undischarged energy mobilized for survival. The functions (such as eating, sleeping, sex, and general activity) regulated by the reptilian brain make a broad and fertile place for symptoms to take root. Anorexia, insomnia, promiscuity, and manic hyperactivity are only a few of the symptoms that can ensue when the organism's natural functions become maladaptive."
- Peter A Levine, p. 106-107, Waking the Tiger

Natural Response to Stress/ False Memories of Trauma

Here trauma healing will be discussed from two perspectives: what is the body's natural response to stress and a traumatic situation, and how some of our memories may not be accurate.

"What most people don't know is that many seemingly benign situations can be traumatic. The consequences of trauma can be widespread and hidden. Over the course of my career I have found an extraordinary range of symptoms - behavioral and psychosomatic problems, lack of vitality, etc. - related not only to the traumatic events mentioned above, but also to quite ordinary events."

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