How to Deal with Accidental Trauma

E.B. Johnson
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by: E.B. Johnson

In this life we are placed in a variety of experiences which test us and challenge us in every age and in every phase. Some of these experiences are positive and some of them aren’t. Along the way, however, we can find ourselves encountering a number of accidental traumas which leave quietly leave us scared and fearful for days and weeks and years to come.

Accidental trauma gets stored in the body.

Trauma — whether we realize we have encountered it or not — leaves a stain and lives in our body for years and years after the initial occurrence (Danese, 2017) . This trauma turns on our fight-or-flight response, which leaves our bodies (and its systems) in a continual state of hyper-arousal. Internally, your prey drive goes into warp speed, and you end up always on your toes, looking for danger, and poised to bolt at the first sight of an emotional or physical threat.

Not all trauma is as overt as physical abuse or a car wreck, however. Sometimes the trauma we accrue is accidental trauma, or a series of unintentional incidents which leave a mark and leave a scar on our emotions and our psyche.

From childhood neglect to romantic implosions, there are so many ways in which we get exposed to trauma and we don’t even realize it until we’re facing its toxic consequences. Have you noticed deep-rooted fears, insecurities, or conflicts that seem to disrupt your life for no apparent reason? It might be time to dig deep, look backward, and consider the accidental traumas that are holding you back from becoming your highest self.

What accidental trauma can look like.

Trauma isn’t always as straightforward as we may think. Sometimes, it’s the result of knock-on effects, and the pain of others being transferred on to us. All an event has to do is rock us emotionally to be traumatic. Understanding that we can take a second look at how our pasts played out, as well as how we choose to heal from those events.

Total smothering

Think back to your childhood. What kind of parent did you have? Did your caretakers keep you at a comfortable distance? Or did they smother you with love and care that made it hard for you to provide those things to yourself? There is such a thing as smothering someone, and it can lead to accidental trauma that impacts their ability to effectively form relationships with others. Rather than being able to balance needs, they look to others to meet all their whims, desires, and requirements; which leads to one-sided relationships.


Though our parents and caretakers don’t often consider it, there is such as a thing as being too protective. The overprotective friend or caretaker is one who can often cross a lot of boundaries in their pursuit of keeping you safe. They might lash out in anger, attempt to control you, or even manipulation your emotions (usually with fear) in an attempt to keep you away from what they see as “danger”. There’s trauma in this, though, and damage to self-belief and the courage we have in our ability to thrive.

Purchasing affection

Have you ever been in a relationship where apologies came cloaked in gifts? Did a parent or even a partner buy out your affection with flashy offerings? This can create conflicted ideas on relationships and connection with others (as well as complicating the feelings you hold around the person making the purchases). You begin to feel as though you have no right to call out their questionable behavior (which is the point of the behavior in the first place) and become trapped without power in a narrative you’re not co-writing.

Becoming a user

When we are used by others, it’s so traumatic to our self-esteem and our sense of pride. Maybe a parent or a caretaker used you like a show dog or accessory. Your goodness was absorbed as proof of their skills, rather than your own hard work. At times, you probably felt like you were only as good as the attention that you brought them. In other words, you became a reflection of that other person and were no longer given credit for the good parts of yourself. Your humanity was stripped from you, as well as your authenticity.

Physical withholding

When someone withdraws from us physically, it can be traumatic — even when it isn’t intentional. Maybe a parent was going through a major loss and they pulled away from everyone…their children included. Perhaps you’ve seen a partner lose a job and (seemingly) their interest in things like intimacy and conversation. These things are hurtful and — sometimes — unavoidable. At their deepest levels, they become traumatic and teach us dangerous patterns of intimacy and attachment.

Sharing in suffering

Have you ever found yourself holding the hand of another person as they experienced a traumatic event? Were you helpless? Did you watch them fall apart without being able to intervene? This can be a trauma on its own, especially if it happened during childhood. Perhaps you became an emotional crutch for a caretaker and were no longer able to be emotionally safe yourself. Believe it or not, this can result in serious trauma that warps our perspective in life and love.

Emotional withdraw

In our relationships, we connect both physically and emotionally with the people that we’re closest to. This can happen on a platonic level (with friends and family), or it can happen on a romantic one (with our intimate partners). In either instance, withholding emotions becomes a major problem. They may do this in order to protect themselves, or they may be using it as a means of manipulation and control. Either way, it damages your emotional stability, and your ability to perceive someone’s intentions and needs.

Prioritizing tradition

While they certainly don’t mean to, the people that we love can damage us with their outdated thinking and dedication to society. This occurs when they choose to honor societal expectations or tradition over your needs. Which, in turn, can result in harsh, extreme, or cruel treatment, as well as potential estrangement from the ones who matter most. Maybe you decided to live a lifestyle their views on society couldn’t understand. Their reaction, though, to repel you is damaging in the highest degree to our trust and faith in love.

Dealing with the accidental trauma in our lives.

Becoming the person we were meant to be requires first transforming who we are from the inside out. To do this, we have to resolve our traumas — both overt and accidental — and find ways to heal our inner self. Focus on the humanity of it all and disconnect with your past. Then you can start asking for more and figure out your role in the resolution.

1. Look for human factor

Being in pain is a curious place to be, while you’re genuinely hurt it has a way of shifting your perspective in such a way that the pain takes over entirely. You aren’t able to thing objectively and you become hyper-focused on all the negative things going on in your body and your mind. In a way, it removes your sense of humanity and your ability to see that humanity in others. Healing the pain they’ve left us requires us to look back with compassion.

Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is doing the best that they can with what they were handed. This is not to say we have to condone the behavior or allow it. We simply have to see it for what it is and find enough courage and compassion within us to see the humanity beneath it all.

Locate your traumas and the people who left them there. Then, instead of allowing your anger to grow over the blame and injustice of it all — try to see the humanity behind the mistakes that were made. Look at those who hurt you unintentionally as the broken children that they are. Try to detach yourself. Imagine you were looking at it from a removed, third-person point-of-view. The more you connect with your deeper humanity, the more you’ll detach from your trauma.

2. Detach yourself from the past

When we have pasts that are filled with a lot of sadness or pain (be it intentional or unintentional) it can be hard to let go of them…even when want to. For some, this comes down to the sense of loss or injustice they feel. A part of them lingers behind because of the resolutions they’re still waiting for. For others, it’s a sense of regret. “What could I have done differently?” “What did I get so wrong?”

You are not a sum of the events that lie behind you. You are not the mistakes your parents made, and you are not destined to carry their burdens and faults for eternity. Your part serves as nothing more than a lesson. Choosing who you want to be can be done from this moment forward.

Cut ties with your past. Step back and look at it for what it is. Give yourself a set time to mourn for it and then let it go. Leave it to those who dwell there and allow yourself to move confidently into the future. The harder we hold on to our trauma, the more of our authenticity we lose between the cracks. Leave your past to the past and leave your trauma there with it.

3. Get a better perspective

Uncovering our layers of trauma can be a complex process which leaves us raw and really confused. The nature of trauma is confusion. Our brains do a lot of interesting things in order to insulate us from the pain that lurks everywhere. It’s not always safe to step out on this journey alone. Sometimes, we need the help of someone knowledgeable who can make us feel safe as we dig into the meat of our deepest levels of pain or shame.

Find a mental health and trauma expert who can help you process the realizations you’re engaging in. This person can give you an unbiased perspective when it comes to doing this type of heavy emotional lifting, and they can also ensure that you’re working at a pace that is safe for you.

Some accidental traumas don’t bruise us deep, but some can produce scars that run into places we didn’t know existed. It’s best to tread carefully if you are dealing with issues in childhood or a painful relationship which affected you deeply on any level. There’s no taboo left in speaking to someone knowledgeable on mental health. Invest in your wellbeing and your safety. Find the right person to talk to.

Putting it all together…

When we’re struggling in life, it’s often possible to look back and find accidental trauma lurking on the edge of our memories and experiences. These traumas can vary in depth and severity, but they all must have resolution in order for us to find peace. Doing that requires us to look within, though, and work on our connections with the past and the way we open the door on healing.

Find the humanity behind your trauma and, within that, your deeper compassion and understanding. We all make mistakes and we all hurt people (both intentionally and unintentionally). To move beyond it, we have to find our empathy and our greater understanding. Cut ties with your past and know that you are not a sum of what was. You can still be the person that you want to be. Reach out to those you trust and don’t be afraid to find a professional to help you sort through the damage. Be okay asking for more, but know that you alone have the power to close the door and give yourself the resolution that you need to heal. Stop holding on to the accidental trauma. Take a deep breath, take a good, hard look — then release it to the universe. We can take the lessons and move on. We don’t have to dwell in the pain forever.

  • Danese, A., & van Harmelen, A. (2017). The hidden wounds of childhood trauma. European Journal Of Psychotraumatology, 8(sup7), 1375840. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2017.1375840

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