“What’s wrong with you?” “Why can’t you just be happy?” “Why can’t you just get over it?” “That’s a really messed up thing to say/think/believe?” Really, the list of these types of questions from people who do not understand trauma reactions can go on for many more pages. If you’re anything like me, you actually wish you could answer those questions or do what they are asking you to do. Feeling angry, negative, pessimistic, hopeless, and cynical all the time is really not a healthy or happy way to live. Waking up each morning wondering what fresh hell this day has in store for you cannot possibly lead to a positive and healthy outlook or outcome in life. So why do people who have survived trauma tend to act and think in a way that pushes them farther away from the person they desperately want to be? The answer lies in the question itself because they have experienced the worst things this world and humanity have to offer. Oftentimes, they have experienced repeated and brutal traumas and exposure to traumas that never seem to end. When you are exposed to those kinds of situations and events, the brain reacts in such a way that being positive and happy and “getting over it” are not actually possible.
Trauma destroys the way your brain was meant to operate, resulting in a cacophony of symptoms and behaviors that are almost impossible to control or change back to normal without intervention. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that the brain of a traumatized person just does not function right. The parts of the brain that are meant to regulate emotion, give context to information, and provide motivation and meaning are basically asleep, while the part of the brain that screams “run for your life!” is on hyperdrive. The hormones that are released in the brain of a traumatized person reach a level of oversaturation which results in this pessimistic and negative outlook. The chemicals and hormones that are meant to allow for positivity and happiness are not functioning in the brain of a traumatized person. The combination of different parts of your brain being “asleep” and the saturation or removal of chemicals and hormones results in numerous different expressions and reactions to the trauma. The only thing that is consistent about these reactions is that they are distressing, frustrating, and out of character for the people who are experiencing them.
So what does all of this mean? It means that the answer to the questions above are not a simple answer and you are most likely not able to control the emotional responses you have to this life. The conflict between who you were before the trauma and who you are now, the feelings of being hopeless to change those things that you do not like or do not want to experience afterward, and the pain and frustration of feeling out of control, cause you to shut down. Pessimism, negativity, cynicism, those are all symptoms of trying desperately to defend yourself from a perceived attack or threat. If you can turn off your hopeful expectations of something positive happening in life, then when those happy things do not happen, you can convince yourself that you’re not disappointed or hurt…because you have convinced yourself that there is nothing good left in the world or in other people. This leads to pushing more people away, especially people who cannot or choose not to try and understand the trauma and pain that you have survived, or who are too traumatized on their own to “handle” what’s going on with you. This further isolation and disillusion about people and life perpetuates the cycle of negativity and can perpetuate the traumatic reactions you are experiencing.
There is no simple answer to how to begin to combat the persistent negativity that comes with experiencing trauma, which is why it is so hard to do. Some people have felt this way for so long, they believe that this is really “who they are” rather than a protective response to what happened to them. But at the core of each of us who has felt or does feel this way is the deeply buried truth that this is not how we were meant to live this life. There is a part of us that will desperately seek relief, normalcy, and identity because we know that this is not who we really are. The process of healing this negativity from your past oftentimes requires you to rebuild yourself from the inside out. You have to look at who you were, who you became, and who you want to be and be willing to do whatever it takes to get to where you want to be.
References: Bessel Van der Kolk; The Body Keeps the Score