Unrecognised trauma

© Paul Wilson for Auckland Therapy Blog, 23 May 2018

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unrecognised traumaCoping with invisible wounds

In my discussions with clients, some are surprised when I use the word trauma to describe elements of their experience. Therapists often think about trauma more broadly than the general public. Below I explain the differences.

Trauma is not just physical

Commonly, people think of trauma in terms of serious injury – like that suffered in a car crash or other accident, natural disaster, physical or sexual assault. Here the injury may be more-or-less visible, at least for a time. Fortunately, there is growing public awareness, that the impacts of trauma may persist for many months or even years, and benefit from professional help. Typically these impacts include a variety of PTSD symptoms.

Other types of trauma are even less visible. As fundamentally social beings, we can feel pain from injury to the emotional ‘body’ – our self-esteem and confidence. In fact, brain imaging shows the pain pathways for physical injury are activated by the emotional pain of social exclusion and rejection.

Emotional abuse

Trauma is not always linked to shocking events caused by a dramatic incident that causes substantial distress. This focuses on shock trauma and misses the impact of strain trauma. A common example of strain trauma is the impact of many small criticisms or bullying, that can’t be escaped from. This strain can wear down self-worth and leave painful emotional scars. Not having any major events that can explaining our inner experience can even increase our distress and confusion. This is especially true when we’ve been told we are overly sensitive or make things up.


Trauma is not just about abuse. An absence can be equally distressing. Emotional neglect and having our feelings ignored or our needs discounted is just as damaging to our sense of being a valuable and lovable human being. In that way, both abuse and neglect inflict the same wound. This may be extreme neglect such as children that are abandoned or ignored. However, often this is more subtle, such as the neglect of a child with an emerging LGBT gender or sexual identity. Another example is an introvert child with extravert parents, where even with best efforts, the parents may struggle to understand their child.

So the least recognised trauma is caused by the strain that comes from years of experiencing subtle forms of emotional neglect. The person is left with the sense that they are not ‘held in mind’ and are unimportant to others.

Healing strain trauma

The ongoing strain or abuse or neglect in childhood, in a toxic relationship, or even a workplace can result in invisible trauma that has significant impacts on our happiness and wellbeing :

  • difficulty trusting others in intimate relationships
  • reacting with anger out of proportion to events (when something touches on an unrecognised wound)
  • struggling to trust ourselves and doubting the value of our own thoughts and feelings
  • ongoing depression or anxiety issues
  • unhelpful coping strategies such as substance use

Talking to a caring professional can be an important step on the journey to healing and wholeness.

Find a Therapist

Paul Wilson headshotPaul Wilson (Ponsonby) is part of our Citywide team of registered therapists. For more information or to arrange an appointment please contact any of the team.

Questions or comments : If you have a question about this post or a question on another topic relating to therapy that could be answered here, please email Paul and we’ll see what we can do.

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