What Is Unresolved Trauma
Unresolved trauma exists when traumatic events experienced by individuals are not fully processed, integrated, or healed.
Trauma refers to deeply distressing experiences that overwhelm one’s ability to cope, often causing intense fear and feelings of helplessness.
There are many different types of trauma. Events that can result in trauma include:
- Child abuse
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Natural disasters
- Serious injuries
- Terminal or prolonged illnesses
- Sudden loss of loved ones
- Vicarious trauma through trauma victims
- Community violence
- Witnessing violence
Unresolved trauma lingers when the intense emotions created by highly distressing events remain unprocessed.
This could happen in the following situations.
Children lack immediate support
Children cannot process difficult emotions stemming from overwhelming trauma on their own. When they lack sufficient emotional support from parents, family members, or caregivers in the aftermath of such events, it can result in lingering unresolved trauma.
Insufficient coping mechanisms
In environments where children’s traumatic emotions are disregarded or suppressed, they may not develop healthy coping strategies to manage stress. This lack of effective coping mechanisms can contribute to unresolved feelings and challenges in processing trauma.1
Some people avoid addressing their trauma, opting instead to suppress memories or sidestep situations that may remind them of the event. They prevent themselves from experiencing emotions or making sense of the traumatic incident, which can hinder the healing process and contribute to unresolved trauma.2
In some instances, cultural norms or expectations, such as the notion that “boys don’t cry” or the belief that remaining silent about traumatic experiences will eventually lead to forgetting and healing, can contribute to the accumulation of unresolved feelings. These cultural attitudes can discourage individuals from expressing or processing their feelings, impeding their ability to heal.
The interaction between genetics and environment can influence how an individual processes and recovers from trauma.3
People who have experienced previous trauma or have a history of unresolved trauma may also be more susceptible to developing further unresolved trauma.
Also See: 8 Signs Of Childhood Trauma In Adults
Here are some common signs of individuals suffering from unresolved trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Unresolved trauma often manifests in mental illness, such as posttraumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder.
Common symptoms of trauma include4
- Nightmares – Disturbing dreams related to the traumatic event disrupt sleep and contribute to ongoing emotional distress.
- Intrusive memories or dissociative disorder – Unwanted, distressing recollections or vivid mental re-experiencing of the traumatic event can cause significant emotional reactions.
- Insomnia – Difficulty falling or staying asleep, often due to anxiety or nightmares related to the traumatic event.
- Social withdrawal – Deliberately evading social situations, people, or places that might trigger horrible memories, leading to isolation and disconnection from support networks.
- Hypervigilance – Constantly being on guard, feeling anxious or on edge, and exhibiting an exaggerated startle response to perceived threats.
- Hyperarousal – Heightened physiological activation, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, or excessive sweating, in response to reminders of the trauma or general stressors.
- Anxiety disorder – Persistent feelings of worry, nervousness, or unease that can interfere with daily functioning and contribute to physical symptoms.
- Memory loss – Difficulty remembering aspects of the traumatic event or experiencing gaps in memory, which can hinder the processing and integration of the experience.
- Depression or mood disorder – Pervasive feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or a lack of interest in activities once enjoyed, which can impact overall well-being and quality of life.
- Worse physical health – Immune suppression causes the individual to be more susceptible to infections and autoimmune diseases.
- Personality disorder – More likely to develop a borderline personality disorder.
All forms of trauma may disrupt an individual’s ability to self-regulate. But adverse childhood experiences, which expose a child to early, severe, and chronic developmental trauma, are particularly harmful.
Complex trauma arises from unresolved attachment trauma like this.
Effects of childhood trauma include greater emotional dysregulation and impulse control deficits. Individuals are at a higher risk of engaging in compulsive behaviors, encountering interpersonal difficulties, and facing challenges in their daily lives.5
Many children with unresolved trauma may develop a tendency to blame themselves for the traumatic events they experienced. They may feel that they are somehow at fault or responsible for what happened to them.
As a result, they might experience a range of negative emotions, including feelings of shame, self-hatred, guilt, grief, remorse, or rage.6
They develop negative views of themselves, others, and their relationships with those around them. These distorted perceptions can significantly impact how they interact with others in future interpersonal relationships.
As adults, these individuals may experience difficulties forming and maintaining healthy connections, struggle with trust, and face communication and emotional intimacy challenges. This cycle of negativity and relationship difficulties can exacerbate the negative effects of trauma, making healing and growth even more challenging.
Due to the negative perceptions of themselves, others, or the world around them, and the inability to effectively regulate their negative emotions, individuals with unresolved trauma might resort to maladaptive coping strategies.
These coping or self-medicating mechanisms include drinking, substance use disorders, eating disorders, or self-injurious behaviors.7
They attempt to numb or escape from the emotional pain associated with trauma experiences., but these self-medicating behaviors often worsen the situation and create additional problems, further complicating the healing process.
Many trauma victims with unresolved emotions struggle with anger issues. They might harbor significant anger for years without help or support to self-regulate.
When left untreated, these anger issues can escalate, leading to uncontrollable anger and severe violent behavior.
Adolescents with unresolved trauma face a higher risk of developing oppositional defiant disorder and exhibiting reactive aggression.8
Some children may grow up feeling powerless and, thus, as adults, they use violence to feel in control and empowered in their intimate relationships resulting in domestic violence.
Research shows that a history of childhood trauma is associated with later intimate partner violence.9
How To Heal From Childhood Trauma
How To Help Children Heal
- 1.Goodman R. Contemporary Trauma Theory and Trauma-Informed Care in Substance Use Disorders: A Conceptual Model for Integrating Coping and Resilience. ASW. Published online September 24, 2017:186-201. doi:10.18060/21312
- 2.Choi KW, Sikkema KJ, Vythilingum B, et al. Maternal childhood trauma, postpartum depression, and infant outcomes: Avoidant affective processing as a potential mechanism. Journal of Affective Disorders. Published online March 2017:107-115. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.01.004
- 3.Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van IJzendoorn MH. Research Review: Genetic vulnerability or differential susceptibility in child development: the case of attachment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online December 2007:1160-1173. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01801.x
- 4.Griffin GD, Charron D, Al-Daccak R. Post-traumatic stress disorder: revisiting adrenergics, glucocorticoids, immune system effects and homeostasis. Clin Trans Immunol. Published online November 14, 2014:e27. doi:10.1038/cti.2014.26
- 5.Bradley B, Westen D, Mercer KB, et al. Association between childhood maltreatment and adult emotional dysregulation in a low-income, urban, African American sample: Moderation by oxytocin receptor gene. Dev Psychopathol. Published online April 18, 2011:439-452. doi:10.1017/s0954579411000162
- 6.Shapiro S. Self-Mutilation and Self-Blame in Incest Victims. APT. Published online January 1987:46-54. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.1922.214.171.124
- 7.Bentley KH, Nock MK, Barlow DH. The Four-Function Model of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury. Clinical Psychological Science. Published online January 3, 2014:638-656. doi:10.1177/2167702613514563
- 8.Honorato B, Caltabiano N, Clough AR. From trauma to incarceration: exploring the trajectory in a qualitative study in male prison inmates from north Queensland, Australia. Health Justice. Published online April 1, 2016. doi:10.1186/s40352-016-0034-x
- 9.Voith LA, Logan-Greene P, Strodthoff T, Bender AE. A Paradigm Shift in Batterer Intervention Programming: A Need to Address Unresolved Trauma. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. Published online July 30, 2018:691-705. doi:10.1177/1524838018791268