Negative Thoughts and Feelings: The Cognitions and Mood Symptoms
Our moods are affected by our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. In a circular fashion, our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are affected by our mood. Since unhealed wounds can affect our mood states, it make sense to pay attention to unhelpful thinking patterns, and to explore our feelings about ourselves and the world around us. As you read the following list, remember our discussion about symptom overlap. This list includes symptoms of other disorders due to symptom overlap, and it not a complete list. Be sure to talk to a professional about any concerns you may have. Here are some examples of ways trauma can affect our thoughts and feelings:
- Blocking out/not remembering important aspects of trauma;
- Negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world (i.e., "I'm not good enough," "The world isn't safe," "No one can be trusted," "I have no future");
- Distorted sense of who is to blame (either of self or of others) related to trauma;
- Persistent display of negative emotions (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame);
- Diminished interest or participation in previously enjoyable activities;
- Feeling detached or estranged from others; and,
- Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (e.g. happiness, pleasure in life activities, joy).
Many people have the utmost compassion for trauma survivors. Therefore, most of us would find it very difficult to understand the hateful things trauma survivors believe about themselves. In effect, the trauma harmed them once in the past, but it continues its 'gift of giving' into the present. This is because the survivor has internalized the voice of their abuser. Thus, although the abuser is no longer present, the abuse continues via the internalized voice of the abuser. This describes unhealed trauma. Consider the negative beliefs that generally cause problems in life such as, "I'm bad," "I can't trust anyone," "I'm not good enough," "No one will ever love me," "I'll never succeed." Beliefs of this nature rarely develop without provocation. Usually we can find some root cause at an unhealed harmful experience.
Many abusers control their victims by convincing them the abuse is somehow their fault; or, that some terrible consequence will befall their loved ones because of telling. Ironically, some victims maintain an illusion of control by the same method: "It's my fault, I did something wrong. If I do things right, the abuse will stop."
Let's consider a 30-year old man named Jericho. He was coerced into sexual activity by a female babysitter when he was just nine. His abuser would tell him things like, "Now you are ruined for everybody else," or "You will always be mine." It's not hard to imagine that Jericho's primary concern when he came into therapy as an adult were problems with romantic relationships.
Trauma can alter someone's world view and/or it can reify it. It is easy to imagine how most traumatic experiences involve both blame and guilt. But the less obvious emotion, shame, is a blend of the two. In shame, the victim blames themselves. This view of oneself is not sustainable. It will cause problems in relationships with self, others, and powers greater than self and others (legal, spiritual, familial).
All of these views can represent a much larger and problematic lens known as a world-view. World-views reflect broad and encompassing beliefs systems, such as, "The world is a dangerous place," or, "Only fools trust others."
To live life well, there needs to be a balance between safety concerns for self and others; with the need for adventure, meaningful relationships, and self-fulfillment. When beliefs interfere with people living according to their values (e.g., personal, spiritual, or cultural values), then those beliefs merit examination. Some spiritual and cultural beliefs can cause people to improperly take blame for a tragedy. Remember, this omnipotent-self approach is a helpful coping technique even though it is self-blaming. The protective element of this omnipotent-self approach goes something like this: "If it is my fault, then I am in control. If I am in control, there is some hope I can prevent this abuse in the future." The hope that message provides a child cannot be under-estimated, nor the courage of its child-like voice. The only difficulty is carrying this protective and hopeful belief from the past into the present. A child victim was very wise to mistakenly believe they could prevent the abuse. An adult continuing to operate from this perspective is bound to be harmed.
When trauma strikes, there is a need to find someone or something to blame. Like the child's omnipotent-self, this ability to find something to blame, creates a greater sense of safety in the world. The notion that there are random events where ordinary folks must endure completely unpredictable, horrid things is just too much for us to bear. So blame releases us from this unpleasant reality. But so often there is no target for the blame. Instead, some people blame themselves for a tragedy or a negative experience, even if all of the rational evidence clearly indicates they were helpless victims, or otherwise not at fault. Other times people will place blame on others who are completely innocent and unworthy of any blame. For instance, a husband may blame his wife (or vice-versa) for the death of their child due to some perceived negligence in care. This occurs despite all the evidence indicating that nothing could have done to prevent the child's death.
Trauma survivors will often express sentiments like, "The way I see the world just changed after it [insert the relevant traumatic experience here] happened." Other similar sentiments are things like, "Things are never going to get better," or "The world around me is just a different place now." Therefore, the essential meaning of this symptom category are related to such beliefs or sentiments.