You probably know that stress is an epidemic. Stress is unfortunately a recurring theme in many of our lives as we juggle commitments and demanding roles, all while not having enough personal time to participate in self-care. However, did you know that trauma and stress can actually have many of the same symptoms? It’s possible that the overwhelm you feel could be rooted in trauma. Many individuals who experience adult or childhood trauma don’t remember the entirety of what they’ve been through. If you’re wondering how to decipher exactly what you’re facing—stress or trauma, I’m here to support you.
Chronic Stress Versus Trauma: Signs & Symptoms
While the causes of trauma and chronic stress are different, they can manifest in your life in similar ways. First, both can have a negative impact on your mental health and contribute to anxiety, depression, irritability, low self-esteem and mood swings. Brain fog and inability to concentrate or make decisions may cause you to struggle in your daily life.
If you’ve noticed that you often struggle with relationships, stress or trauma could also be the culprit. Both chronic stress and trauma can affect a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships with others. On top of impacting your mental health and relationships, physical signs can include fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and sleep disturbances.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress:
- Feeling anxious, worried, or overwhelmed
- Racing thoughts or difficulty concentrating
- Irritability or anger
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Fatigue or low energy
- Muscle tension or headaches
- Digestive problems or stomach issues
- Increased heart rate or blood pressure
- Avoiding social situations or activities you once enjoyed
Symptoms of Trauma:
- Intrusive thoughts, memories or flashbacks related to the traumatic event
- Avoidance of people, places, or situations that remind you of the trauma
- Feeling numb, disconnected or emotionally numb
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Hypervigilance or an exaggerated startle response
- Feeling anxious, nervous, or constantly on guard
- Anger or irritability
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Feeling detached from others or difficulty forming close relationships
The Path to Healing
In order to finally feel free from stress or trauma, you must first explore the factors in your current life or your past causing your pain and frustration. Chronic stress is caused by ongoing environmental or psychological stressors, while trauma is typically caused by a specific traumatic event or series of events. Treatment for chronic stress may involve stress management techniques and lifestyle changes, which you can develop during therapy sessions. Treatment for trauma may also involve therapy, including specialized trauma-focused interventions.
Managing Stressors in Your Life
In the midst of stress, many of us feel that we don’t have enough time or energy to make the necessary changes to improve the situation. To escape the cycle, you must take a step back, figure out what types of stress management work for you, and ask for some support along the way.
- Identify the source of stress. Keep a stress journal or work with a therapist to identify the specific stressors that are causing chronic stress. Once you are in the habit of writing down or talking about your life, you will notice patterns pointing to the stressors affecting you.
- Re-evaluate your commitments and relationships. What activities and people drain your energy and make you feel more stressed? Can you reduce your time spent doing those activities and being with those individuals, or even cut them out completely? Learn to say no when your plate is full or even when you just don’t want to commit to another task. Prioritize self-care to reduce feelings of overwhelm and burnout.
- Introduce healthy habits. Participating in new stress-reducing activities can help you feel more grounded and increase mental clarity. It may take some experimenting to discover what works for you. Try a new form of exercise or a healthy recipe, and prioritize sleep. Engage in mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, positive self-talk, or other techniques to decrease the impact of stress. Learn to replace destructive coping mechanisms with healthy ones.
- Build a support system you can rely on. Although you may feel alone in your stress, you don’t have to be. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to express that you’re struggling—everyone experiences heightened stress levels at some point in life. Reach out to your support system of friends or family for emotional support. I’m ready to listen and provide coping techniques and solutions as part of your support system, too.
Uncovering the Causes of Trauma
Acknowledging and revisiting your trauma can be painful, but it’s the first step in healing. Because of the complex and sensitive nature of trauma, it is best to work with a mental health professional as a guide in your healing journey. At first, you might not even remember specific traumatic events that happened to you. In therapy for trauma, we can explore these events and memories at your own pace.
Once you have established what happened to you that caused your trauma, you can begin to understand its impacts on your life. Through the therapy process, we will put a plan in place for moving forward, toward the healing you deserve.
Facing Chronic Stress & Trauma Simultaneously
The causes of trauma and chronic stress can often be interwoven. In fact, chronic stress can sometimes be a result of ongoing exposure to traumatic events or a traumatic environment. For example, those who have experienced ongoing childhood trauma, including neglect or poverty, may develop chronic stress symptoms as a result of their experiences. Those who have experienced a single traumatic event may also continue to experience stress symptoms long after the event has ended, which can contribute to the development of chronic stress.
The weight of both chronic stress and trauma on their own can feel so heavy–and together, they can feel absolutely suffocating. As a trauma therapist, I have 16 years of experience supporting people in overcoming what is holding them back from living the life they desire. I look forward to walking with you on this journey, too.
Learn more about Kirstin Carl Therapy and my passion for helping women in California here.