Is it stress or trauma? How to tell

Sometimes stress is about much more than just stress. Anxiety, stress and low mood can all be caused by undiagnosed trauma, according to author and clinical psychologist Dr. Marianne Trent.

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What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Sometimes stress is about much more than just stress. Anxiety, stress and low mood can all be caused by undiagnosed trauma, according to author and clinical psychologist Dr. Marianne Trent.

‘It’s actually easy to have experienced trauma – issues with parental mental health, family separation or parental substance misuse, for example – without necessarily knowing that you have,’ she says. ‘A sense that your family didn’t seem ‘together’ or ‘normal’ like other families in the first 18 years of life could contribute to a developmental trauma presentation, and post-18 trauma can crop up much more easily than people imagine. When left unprocessed or unresolved it can leave people feeling very stressed and at risk of burnout.’

There are different types of trauma – acute, chronic or developmental – and each type has a different cause, different symptoms and different treatment options.

‘Sometimes when humans have experienced trauma they just carry on because there’s a sense that there wasn’t a chance to ‘come undone’ at the time,’ explains Dr. Trent. It might be months or even years later when the symptoms of trauma make their presence known and it doesn’t always show up as a mental health difficulty.

‘Due to the way that trauma affects the human body it can also lead to migraines, IBS and even back problems. People who have experienced trauma are more likely to be obese and to drink more units of alcohol per week too.’

Far from opening a can of worms, realising that you have been through trauma and thus may be experiencing something more than stress is incredibly validating. ‘When people feel invalidated and abnormal they are more prone to burnout and symptoms of stress because of the high pressure they have previously put upon themselves to just keep going,’ explains Dr. Trent.

‘If reading about trauma in this way makes you consider your own family history then it’s important to reach out to a trauma specialist such as a clinical psychologist to process your experiences. By doing so clients are able to learn the skills to stabilise themselves, to better tolerate their distressing thoughts, to stay more present in the moment and to get more joy and satisfaction from life with reduced shame and guilt, reduced anxiety and brighter mood.’

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