Unprocessed Trauma

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Unprocessed trauma is trauma that continues to disrupt months or years after the originating event or events. Unprocessed trauma interferes with a sense of safety, relationships, and physiological responses to stress.

Processing experience is a cognitive, emotional, and physical adaptation to extreme events that overwhelm normal reactionary processes. The event shocks stability, disrupting normal functioning, and security. Processing the experience integrates the trauma into a new schema that either accommodates or assimilates the event, allowing security to return, and normal stress reactions to resume.

Processing is integrating by internalizing the experience in a way that restores a sense of safety, predictability, and connection to oneself and others.

Trauma can be a one-time event, a prolonged event or a series of events. The trauma, no matter the form, interferes with foundational narratives previously relied upon to interpret experience, and integrate it into our expectations. The unprocessed trauma gets stuck in our bodies and minds, damaging health, happiness, and relationships.

According to The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), unprocessed trauma actually attack survivors in the DNA of their cells (Cribbs, 2020).

Processing trauma is both a physical and psychological process. Markedly, trauma is not just “in your head”. Traumatic events leave a real, physical imprint on your body, disrupting memory storage processes and physically change our brains.

​Impact of Unprocessed Trauma​

​Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine and internationally acclaimed author warns that “unprocessed and disintegrated memories of a childhood trauma may not only cause problems and suffering for the individual him/herself, but can also constitute a serious threat for other people” (Siegel 2001).

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts and a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network. He wrote that traumatic events “leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems” (2015, location 166).

One psychological writer expressed the impact of unprocessed trauma like this, “unprocessed trauma will often result in unfamiliar mental and physical difficulties. After experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress, many of us will tend to use avoidance in the hope of overcoming the trauma which has taken place.” The article continues, adding, “unprocessed trauma can potentially warp the outlook we obtain of our own lives, leading us to react to any future situations abnormally” (2022).

When we hold on to the trauma, afraid to address the lingering hurt, it festers, drawing precious resources from our lives. Undoubtedly, trauma living in our minds significantly impacts all areas of our lives.

“Trauma wouldn’t be so devastating if it remained in the past; but it’s much more pervasive. Like a parasite, the past drains vitality from the present. The smallest sights, smells, or sounds resurrect powerful emotions from the traumatic past—overwhelming, unexplainable and unbearable” (Murphy, 2015).

“Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. . . . It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it.” 

~Jessica Stern

How Do We Process Lingering Trauma?​

Van der Kolk teaches that there are three avenues for processing trauma: 

  1. top down, by talking, (re-) connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma;
  2. by taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information, and
  3. bottom up: by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma (2015, location 198).

Usually, processing is a mixture of all three. We build healthy relationships and work with a professional, while taking medication to calm imbalanced biological arousals, topped off with mindfulness practices that reconnect us with our bodies (emotions).

Books on Trauma

Life is a process of encountering and adapting. We errantly predict, prepare, and act. Unfortunately, some of the surprises hurt, injuring sensitive regions in our bodies and psyches. Some wounds linger, interfering with our lives, infecting adjacent and unrelated spheres of wellness. Consequently, these traumas need compassionate care, requiring additional resources and patient others to assist in the processing.

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Cribbs, G. D., (2020). The Ticking Time Bomb of Unprocessed Trauma. The Mighty. Published 7-1-2020. Accessed 8-25-2021. 

Murphy, T. Franklin (2015) Childhood Trauma. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-2015. Accessed 6-10-2022.

​Siegel, D. J. (2001). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; First edition

Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. ‎ Penguin Publishing Group; Reprint edition.

Khiron Clinics (2022). The Impact of Unprocessed Trauma. Published 5-27-2022. Accessed 6-10-2022.

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