Trauma Stands Between Us and Healthy Communication
Past traumas affect the way we live in the present, whether we like it or not, especially affecting the way we communicate in relationships. One way our past affects us is by clouding our reactions to present events with emotions based on similar experiences in our pasts. A conversation happening in the present can stir up memories of the past, even if we don't realize it, and we often don't. For people who have been through trauma, these trauma reactions can be even stronger and more frequent, and they can come between us and healthy communication in our relationships.1
We're Not Always Aware of Our Trauma Reactions
We might have an intense emotional response that is out of proportion to the situation because the situation is reminiscent of past trauma, but we aren't necessarily aware of what that trauma is. Our brains want to protect us from experiencing the trauma again, and it has many ways of doing this, including blocking the trauma from our consciousness and becoming extremely sensitive to danger.2 The problem is that it often overcorrects by sensing danger where there isn't any, making it even more difficult for us to communicate in a healthy way. It's our brain's way of trying to help, but it can make life difficult for us in healthy relationships by preparing us to survive but not to thrive.2
What Do Trauma Responses Look Like?
These emotional responses look different for everyone. We might become defensive, overly jealous, fearful or anxious, aloof and closed-off, or lash out in anger.
My response is to try to please others, and I have had a habit in my past of over-apologizing, as I discussed in a previous article. When someone pointed out a mistake I made, my emotional response was to apologize profusely and go overboard trying to repair my mistake to the point where it became more obtrusive than the mistake itself.
Some people respond to constructive criticism with defensiveness, or their first reaction is to attack the other person because it reminds them of times in the past when they received harsh and unwelcome criticism in a hostile environment. These are just some examples. I'm sure you can think of examples from your own lives.
What Can We Do About It?
It can be hard to know what is a reasonable reaction and what is a trauma response, but one step toward improving your communication is taking ownership of your emotions as something you can acknowledge and let go of, rather than something out of your control and forced upon you by someone else. These techniques have helped me:
- Pause before speaking. Take a deep breath to calm your nervous system before you say something impulsively. This can give you a moment to collect yourself before you say something you regret.
- Take a time-out in a conversation if you feel you are too emotional to communicate productively. Tell the other person that you need time to think about it and pick it up later when you are in a clearer headspace. You can call the time-out if you realize the other person is too emotional for the discussion as well.
- Use "I Feel" statements to change the way you communicate, especially during times of intense emotion. For example, "I feel hurt when you criticize me," rather than, "You're such a jerk sometimes." (I discuss "I Feel" statements and why they can help improve communication in the video below.)
- See a therapist. A therapist can help you explore and heal past trauma, become more self-aware, learn to trust the right people and work on your communication skills to improve your relationships.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Let me know in the comments.
- Deloe, J., "How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?" HealthyPlace, July 2016.
- Rosenthal, M., "Three Ways Trauma Affects Your Brain." HealthyPlace, November 2013.
Sabatello, J. (2021, July 5). Trauma Stands Between Us and Healthy Communication, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/7/trauma-stands-between-us-and-healthy-communication