Habits That Are Trauma Responses
James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung talk about how trauma affects our health.
- From a psychological standpoint, personal upheavals lead to deep and lasting emotional shifts. Unexpected events are typically associated with mental confusion, including overthinking and trying to make sense of what occurred and why.
- In terms of social aspects, traumatic events can drastically disturb an individual’s social connections.
- These social and psychological shifts often encourage changes in lifestyle, such as unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, irregular exercise, disrupted sleep, and poor eating patterns.
- Each of these psychological, social, and behavioral impacts triggers a chain of biological changes. These include increases in cortisol (a stress hormone), disruptions in the immune system, changes in cardiovascular function, and a series of shifts in neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit signals in the brain).
Surprisingly, the opposite can be also true.
Most people deal with traumatic experiences quite well, with no major changes in their mental or physical health. Why is it that some people seem to deal with major upheavals better than others? What is the profile of healthy coping? We know, for example, that people with an intact social support group weather upheavals better than do others.James W. Pennebaker and Cindy K. Chung
An increasing number of studies indicate that having people write about emotional upheavals can result in healthy improvements in social, psychological, behavioral, and biological functioning. When people transform their feelings and thoughts about personally upsetting experiences into language, their physical and mental health often improve.
Fear of Abandonment
Fear of abandonment is often considered as an emotional response that arises from past experiences, such as traumatic events, loss, or rejection. It’s typically not classified as a habit. However, the ways in which a person copes with this fear can become habitual if repeated consistently over time.
For example, if someone with a fear of abandonment consistently reacts to perceived signs of abandonment with clingy or controlling behavior, these behaviors could be considered habitual.
When someone fears abandonment, they might be “needy” as a way to try to prevent others from leaving. They may seek constant reassurance, display excessive clinginess, or demand more attention than usual from their partners, friends, or family. These behaviors can become habitual, repeating each time the person feels threatened with the possibility of abandonment.
Simultaneously, this person may also “push people away without meaning to.” This could manifest as defensive behaviors, such as picking fights, criticizing others, or creating emotional distance. Again, these behaviors can become habitual responses to perceived threats of abandonment.
The person might not consciously choose these behaviors, but they repeat them because, in the past, these behaviors have provided some form of emotional protection or relief. The person might not even realize that these habitual behaviors are contributing to their difficulties in relationships, thus reinforcing their fear of abandonment.
In such cases, the person might benefit from working on changing these habitual behaviors, perhaps with the help of a mental health professional. Changing these habitual responses often requires understanding the underlying fear and developing healthier coping strategies, which might involve cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness techniques, or other psychological interventions.
Habit of Overworking
The habit of overworking can be a trauma response. A person who has experienced trauma might throw themselves into their work as a form of avoidance, trying not to think about or deal with the traumatic event. Overworking can also be a way of seeking control when other aspects of life feel uncontrollable, which can be a common feeling after experiencing trauma.
It’s also possible that overworking is a learned response from childhood, where work was emphasized as a means of gaining approval, or where neglect or high expectations might have led to the belief that one’s worth is determined solely by productivity or achievement.
If a person’s fear of abandonment extends to their professional life, they might constantly worry about being ‘left behind’ or ‘let go’ in their workplace. This could lead to job insecurity and drive workaholic habits as they strive to make themselves indispensable. If someone associates their worth or lovability with their productivity or achievement, they might overwork because they’re afraid that they’ll be abandoned or rejected if they don’t meet certain standards.
When a person feels insecure about their job, they may fear losing their position or not being seen as valuable or necessary within their workplace. This could drive them to work excessively in order to prove their worth and secure their position.
Workaholism or overworking can be a response to this job insecurity. By working excessively, the person might believe they are reducing the risk of job loss. However, this can lead to a cycle where the person feels constantly pressured to work, leading to burnout and other negative effects on mental and physical health.
However, these patterns can be unhealthy and counterproductive. Excessive working may lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and strained relationships both in and out of the workplace.
People Pleasing Habits
Amy Morin says that “people-pleasing can be a serious problem, and it’s a hard habit to break”.
Here are some indications you may be overstretching in your effort to keep everyone content:
Discomfort with anger directed at you
If the mere thought of someone being upset with you is unbearable, it’s likely you’re compromising your principles. Avoiding conflict at all costs can prevent you from standing up for what you believe in and the people you value.
Feeling accountable for others’ emotions
If you believe you have the power to dictate others’ happiness, it’s problematic. As a rule, everyone is responsible for their own emotional well-being.
Saying sorry too often might be a sign of a deeper issue. You don’t have to apologize for being yourself.
Engaging in self-destructive behavior for others’ comfort
For instance, if you tend to overeat because you believe it makes others happy in social settings, you’re likely a people-pleaser.
Relying on external validation
If your self-esteem hinges entirely on others’ opinions, you’ll only feel good when showered with praise.
The desire to constantly please or entertain others can sometimes be a trauma response linked to the fear of abandonment. This often stems from early life experiences, where the person learned that their value or worth, and thus their safety and security, depended on pleasing others or making others happy. Over time, this behavior can become habitual, as the person continues to use it as a strategy to avoid potential rejection or abandonment.
Not everyone who has a habit of people-pleasing or entertaining others necessarily has a fear of abandonment or a history of trauma. This type of coping mechanism can be helpful in certain contexts, but it can also become maladaptive if it leads to self-neglect or if it’s used to avoid addressing underlying issues.
Attention Seeking Behavior
Engaging in actions with the intent to garner others’ notice or attention characterizes the habit of attention-seeking. This behavior can take numerous forms, from flaunting achievements and magnifying circumstances to acting out or even pretending to be ill or upset.
Causes behind attention-seeking behavior can be low self-esteem, a sense of isolation, or a craving for validation. It’s vital to recognize that it’s natural for everyone to seek attention to some degree—it’s an inherent part of human interaction. However, when such actions become intense, recurrent, or manipulative, they might signal disruption and potentially point to underlying psychological concerns like histrionic or narcissistic personality disorders.
In some instances, attention-seeking behavior can be a reaction to past traumatic experiences. For example, someone who experienced a lack of attention or care during their formative years might develop attention-seeking habits. They might unconsciously hold the notion that being in the constant limelight validates their existence or self-worth. Alternatively, they might try to relive situations of past neglect to finally establish control over them.
Habit of Getting Defensive
The habit of getting defensive is a behavioral pattern where an individual reacts negatively or with resistance when they perceive criticism, challenge, or threat, even when none may be intended. This reaction typically involves justifying one’s actions, counter-attacking, or evading the subject at hand, often obstructing constructive communication or problem-solving.
When a person habitually gets defensive, they may have difficulty accepting feedback.
Constant defensiveness can hamper personal growth, and relationships. It creates or exacerbate conflict, instead of resolving it.
The first step in breaking this habit involves self-awareness and understanding that defensiveness is often a reaction to internal feelings rather than external reality.
The first step towards halting defensive behavior is to become cognizant of when it’s occurring. Consider keeping a daily journal to explore your feelings and how different situations impacted your emotional state.
Ask yourself, “Does defensive behavior align with the kind of person I aspire to be?” If the answer is no, it’s time to clearly define your ideal behavior.
Are you aware of situations where you’re most likely to become defensive? It could be around a certain person or in a specific situation. The best strategy is to list situations that tend to trigger your defensiveness.
When defensiveness starts creeping in, contemplate how the best version of yourself would handle the situation. If you’re unsure, use your journal to outline alternative actions you could take in place of acting on defensive feelings.
Being caught off guard or surprised by someone can increase the likelihood of a defensive reaction. Therefore, anticipating such situations allows you to prepare how you might react with compassion towards yourself and others.
If you’re struggling with defensive behavior in your interactions, it’s crucial to examine the underlying emotions driving your reactions. It’s possible that you’re not consciously aware of feeling hurt, angry, sad, ashamed, or belittled when you react defensively.
The first step to stop defensive reactions is to become aware of when it happens and identify your feelings in that moment. Keeping a journal or a written log of your reactions could aid in this self-awareness.
As you become more familiar with your patterns, it will be easier to recognize when you’re likely to have a setback and plan your reaction accordingly.
Defensiveness is a learned behavior, meaning it can be unlearned too.
When we speak of feeling defensive, we’re usually referring to the emotional response we experience after being criticized (or perceiving criticism). This emotional cocktail typically consists of feelings such as sadness, hurt, shame, and quite frequently, anger.
Simultaneously, we also refer to becoming defensive, which outlines the actions we take following criticism. This could include counter-criticism, the use of sarcasm, or even opting for the silent treatment.
Describing your feelings as defensive could potentially be unhelpful. It’s better to said “I felt sad and ashamed.”
It’s entirely natural and understandable to feel hurt when someone points out our mistakes or critiques us. Acknowledging these errors always induces a certain degree of pain.
Defensiveness emerges as a diversion tactic, aiming to detract from these painful feelings. By critiquing the other person in return, we shift the spotlight onto their errors or flaws, which temporarily lessens our negative feelings. At its core, defensiveness serves as a temporary feel-good strategy. However, its short-lived benefits often lead to prolonged discomfort in the long run.
At a fundamental level, defensiveness is a reaction to fear and insecurity. We become defensive because we’re scared and unsure of how to comfort ourselves. Thus, we resort to this primal coping mechanism of retaliating and criticizing the other person, providing a temporary boost to our self-esteem. Essentially, defensiveness projects an illusion of confidence and self-worth.
Defensiveness is a potent, natural instinct, and overcoming it is no simple task.
Recognizing your defensiveness is crucial as it helps circumvent a common, yet detrimental pitfall: exacerbating painful emotions. Feeling defensive is challenging enough, but adding guilt to the mix amplifies your overall emotional pain. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to approach situations calmly and rationally.
Contrarily, acknowledging your defensiveness reduces this additional layer of pain, making your defensive feelings more manageable and paving the way for a healthier progression.
Prepare for your defensiveness
The strategies we’ve discussed so far focus on in-the-moment actions when you sense defensiveness creeping in. However, as the age-old saying suggests, prevention is the best medicine…
Put simply, it’s easier to prevent defensiveness if you don’t let it escalate initially. One effective method to achieve this is by consciously foreseeing your defensive reactions.
Unanticipated criticism tends to amplify defensiveness. However, if we brace for it, the overall intensity significantly diminishes.
Identify frequent situations that prompt defensiveness. If you often find yourself arguing with your spouse at night, for example, form a habit of anticipating defensiveness during your bedtime routine. Visualize a hypothetical critique from your spouse, then envision yourself beginning to get defensive but managing it effectively.
Similar to an athlete mentally rehearsing the perfect swing or shot, anticipating defensiveness and strategizing how to handle it effectively can prevent defensiveness from arising in the first place.
“Defensive reactivity” pertains to the brain’s defense system’s sensitivity or responsiveness, especially the amygdala (our emergency response center). Perceived threats or situations that we’ve learned to view as threatening trigger this danger center instinctively and not intentionally. This reaction is immediate. A perceived threat raises cortisol levels, signaling danger to the body; heart and metabolic rates increase, leading to heightened alertness.
This is not indicative of a character flaw; it could very well be a protective mechanism from your past that is no longer beneficial. We can replace outdated behavior with intention, willingness, and skill.
Habit of Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance is a hazardous habit.
This persistent state of high alert often manifests as constant worrying, restlessness, and obsessive preoccupation with potential issues.
The individual exhibiting this behavior is in a state of hyper-vigilance. Their brain is conditioned to constantly anticipate potential threats, always scanning the environment, and preparing for the worst-case scenarios. This state of mind can be draining and detracts from their ability to live in and cherish the present moment, as they are perpetually planning many steps ahead.
Such behavior often stems from an unstable childhood environment, characterized by emotional turmoil, constant disagreements, or exposure to dangerous conditions. The trauma could either be long-term and consistent or sudden and specific.
As a child, the individual had to develop coping mechanisms in response to these conditions.
Some children learn to retreat and isolate themselves, seeking refuge in solitude. Others learn to tiptoe around issues, becoming ‘good’ kids who adapt to circumstances to avoid causing trouble or instigating conflict. Some might respond with anger, trying to incite change in their volatile environment.
However, these childhood coping mechanisms often prove less effective in adulthood, yet they remain ingrained in the individual’s behavior, maintaining their sensitivity to others’ reactions and predisposition to anticipate worst-case scenarios.
Robert Taibbi says that, often, children who develop hyper-vigilance as a coping mechanism may grow up to have generalized anxiety disorder. Their brain continuously scans for potential threats, although the intensity of this ‘radar’ varies among individuals.
The key to managing this condition involves recognizing potential triggers in advance and being aware of escalating anxiety levels. Catching this heightened state of alert early on is crucial, as it becomes challenging to manage once it reaches an extreme level. Regular self-check-ins throughout the day can help track anxiety levels.
It’s important to understand that resolution doesn’t come from obsessively trying to solve the perceived problem; that only leads to more anxiety. Instead, acknowledging that these reactions stem from the ‘child-brain’ and that they are now an adult capable of managing their reactions can prove more beneficial.
The anger habit, often erupting from a deep sense of frustration and the stress of anxiety, can sometimes be a reaction formed due to past traumatic experiences. This habit becomes more challenging to control over time, as it develops into an entrenched conditioned response by adulthood.
Conditioned responses are reflexive reactions that arise from a repeated association of two experiences. When one occurs (A), it automatically triggers the other (B), bypassing our conscious decision-making process in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
For instance, a sudden drop in energy, confidence, or self-value (A) – feelings of being insulted or devalued, possibly stemming from past trauma – causes a reaction (B) where we blame others to generate adrenaline. Similarly, when we’re in a vulnerable state (A) due to guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, physical pain, or powerlessness – feelings of being accused, threatened, or exposed, again possibly rooted in traumatic experiences – we react by blaming others (B).
These conditioned responses, much like exercising a muscle, strengthen the habit of anger each time they occur, making it increasingly automatic. Eventually, we may interpret constant insult, threat, or exposure, possibly reflecting the influence of unresolved traumatic experiences.
Social Anxiety Habits
Social anxiety is a recognized mental health condition that involve habitual patterns of thinking and behavior that contribute to feelings of anxiety in social situations.
People with social anxiety often have habitual negative thought patterns. They might habitually imagine the worst-case scenario in social situations, assume that others are judging them negatively, or perceive neutral or even positive social interactions as negative.
Social anxiety can also involve habitual behaviors. For example, someone with social anxiety might habitually avoid social situations, withdraw from conversations, or use their phone as a “safety behavior” to avoid interacting with others.
These thought and behavior patterns become habits in the sense that they are repeated, automatic responses to certain situations or stimuli. These habitual responses can be unlearned and replaced with healthier patterns of thinking and behavior through therapy and other forms of treatment.
Habit of Suppressing Emotions
Often, the inclination to suppress emotions is linked to our childhood experiences and the way our parents communicated with us.
Imagine a childhood where parents seldom expressed their emotions or discussed their feelings. Further, envision a scenario where the expression of emotions was met with shame or punishment. Or perhaps certain emotions were labeled as wrong, and specific experiences were dismissed.
Under such circumstances, a child, when faced with misunderstanding or harsh consequences for their feelings, quickly learns that it might be safer not to express or entirely evade their emotions. This learned behavior tends to persist into adulthood, where individuals continue to conceal potent emotions, often without conscious awareness.
When faced with discomforting thoughts, emotions, and feelings and not knowing how to manage them, we tend to push them aside. These unprocessed emotions, although seemingly dormant, can subtly influence our behaviors.
Habit of Over-Explaining
This behavior, known as ‘fawning’, is a trauma response, often indicating a subconscious belief that surrendering personal needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries is a requirement for maintaining relationships.
The principal idea behind fawning is to prevent the instigator from continuing their harmful actions by doing everything possible to appease them.
Fawning is a way to bypass the fight, flight, or freeze trauma responses, which can be incredibly stressful for our nervous systems.
The propensity to over-explain often originates from childhood trauma. Individuals who felt abandoned may learn to please others to prevent them from leaving. Fawning behavior can also result from childhood experiences where emotions were suppressed. People raised in environments where they weren’t encouraged to assume leadership roles might identify themselves as followers and pleasers.
Feeling unheard or blamed, either as a child or an adult, can foster a tendency for fawning. Childhood experiences of not being listened to or being unfairly blamed can lead to adult patterns of people-pleasing. Experiences of gaslighting at any age can also contribute to a habit of over-explaining, an attempt to prevent others from twisting one’s words.
Depending on the nature of the trauma, over-explaining might be a strategy to avoid disappointing others by providing justification for one’s actions.