Why Trauma Can Be Hard to Realize at First

During my previous year at Virginia Tech, I was acting as if I was generally happy and healthy – at least before the pandemic arose. I appeared to be more enthusiastic than ever, going to more social events and becoming more involved in student organizations. I had rewarding leadership opportunities, had recently earned and secured a spot to study abroad in Switzerland, and had a newfound passion for playing the guitar and writing amateur songs and poems. On the outside, I was doing better than ever. But on the inside, I was dealing with a great sense of agony, and I didn’t know exactly where it was coming from at first.

Unfortunately, this feeling was a bit too familiar to me since it wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced emotional agony to this extent. I almost treated it as an expected part of life and therefore didn’t really worry about it. I believed it was simply a routine for me to go through cycles of contentment followed by despair for no apparent reason. On the other hand, fortunately, there was a particular source of the dreadful feeling this time around that I could finally pinpoint later on – but it took me 9 months to truly acknowledge it for myself.

Yep, you read that right: it took a whole 9 months to fully realize the implications of a series of events around the beginning of that school year. Despite those events, I was still optimistic about myself at the beginning. Moving into an apartment off-campus while still residing very close to campus was exhilarating; I had an even greater sense of freedom than during my freshman year in a dorm and felt as if I was finally starting to feel like a true grownup. My classes turned out to be exciting, and I was looking forward to learning from amazing professors.

Quickly, the things I hadn’t fully processed started to really wear me down. My grades started to suffer, and even friends were a bit concerned about me due to my heightened impulsivity and risky decision-making. Still, I pushed those concerns aside and somehow convinced myself that I was doing okay. Then, when the pandemic hit, I was feeling even more down and unmotivated. But simultaneously, I was given more time to reflect on my experiences and dig deeper into my thoughts. I couldn’t distract myself as much as I could when everything was normal.

By the time it all clicked for me, it was already summer, and I couldn’t make up for all the time lost dealing with tremendous distress when I should have been more on top of my studies and well-being. In general, traumatic experiences seem like moments that should be obvious and forefront to whoever goes through them. Why can such life-changing and debilitating events be so difficult to acknowledge? Why are these experiences sometimes buried so deeply? There’s a psychological reason behind this.

According to Northwestern Medicine, when certain memories have formed that tie in with stress or trauma, those memories might become inaccessible in a typical state of mind. In the short term, this can be a protective mechanism, when it’s too unbearable to recall an event. So, in essence, not remembering trauma initially can be a natural response. It protects you from having to deal with the pain of an utterly stressful event when it’s still too apparent and raw, letting time pass so that it becomes easier to handle in the future.

If you have dealt with or are dealing with suppressed trauma: you're not alone. Don’t beat yourself up for not coming to terms with something sooner or taking action on things earlier. The human mind shouldn't have to withstand so much at once, so I encourage you to give yourself credit for at least making it out of whatever trauma you may have gone through before. Working with a professional, such as a counselor or a therapist, and being open about your experiences to close ones are some of the ways in which you can heal and find support. For me, at least, that's how I’ve bounced back and have found strength and satisfaction with myself again.