Past trauma we’ve experienced affects so many things we do and how we live our lives. The body physically holds on to trauma, for instance. Trauma can lead to over-explaining yourself to avoid conflict (also known as fawning) or trauma bonding relationships. It even increases our sense of motivation. This is referred to as trauma drive.
While, on the surface, boosted motivation may seem like a positive thing (more motivation = good, right?), Joanne Frederick, PhD, LPC, a licensed mental health counselor, says it's not a healthy or sustainable way of operating. Why? The motivation behind trauma drive comes from a place of fear rather than authenticity. So, if you’ve felt like you’ve lost your urge to power through and get things done, it’s not a sign that you’ve lost your mojo but that you’re most likely healing.
- Joanne Frederick, LCPC, licensed clinical professional counselor based in Washington, DC
Below, Dr. Frederick explains what trauma drive is all about, how it affects our lives, and tangible tips for healing it.
What is trauma drive?
As the name of the term suggests, past trauma you’ve experienced essentially drives the way you do everything in your life in an effort to avoid having those experiences again. “When we are stuck in a less-than-ideal situation, our bodies will react instantly based on the previous trauma we are or have been experiencing,” Dr. Frederick explains. “If someone with trauma finds themselves in a situation similar to what they were doing when the trauma occurred, they will preemptively push themselves to overcome the issue so that they will not have to relive the problem.” In other words, trauma drive is your body’s way of protecting itself from going through those past experiences again in the future.
According to Dr. Frederick, any experience that invokes trauma, such as abuse or illness, can cause trauma drive to develop. “For example, if someone went through an extreme illness and now experiences PTSD, they may eat well and work out more to keep themselves healthy to avoid any future ailments,” she says. “The trauma from the pain they were in now motivates them to be as healthy as possible.”
Moreover, Dr. Frederick explains that trauma drive is a three-part process that begins with panic, followed by catastrophizing and lashing out at others. “If we perceive that we might not acquire the success we think we need to achieve to derive the social acceptance we desire, we begin to panic,” she says. “Then, to ‘remove’ ourselves from the moment, we go into the future and become our own worst enemy with all kinds of ‘what if’ questions such as, ‘what if my mortgage isn’t approved? What if my raise isn’t high enough? What if I am the last of my friends to get married?’ Lastly, to forget the suffering we are going through, we lash out at others or engage in risky acts or behaviors to numb the pain.”
How trauma drive affects your life
Trauma drive can manifest in many areas of life, including career, finances, relationships, and how we respond to situations. Other examples include chasing material possessions such as fancy cars even if you don’t want them but feel they result in social acceptance. Dr. Frederick says it can also look like catastrophic thinking, such as “nobody will ever want to raise a family with me because I had to declare bankruptcy in my ‘20s.” It can also lead to making hasty decisions and being overly aggressive with people instead of responding in a logical and well-thought-out manner.
Trauma drive can also lead to obsessiveness. Using the previous health example, someone who experienced an illness may be doing a stellar job at taking better care of their bodies, so they don’t become sick again. But, Dr. Frederick says the trauma may still present itself in other ways, too, such as flashbacks, mood swings, or night terrors. “It is still very apparent that the person is struggling to overcome the damage,” she says. “Furthermore, their actions to avoid the trauma may border on obsessiveness. They may feel like they must work out every day for the same amount of time, or they will most definitely suffer again. There is very little room to stray.”
A decrease in motivation can be a sign of healing
With that in mind, if you feel like your sense of motivation to work toward your goals has decreased, that can be a sign that you’re healing the past trauma. “When a person begins to heal from their trauma, they will start to allow themselves more room to relax,” Dr. Frederick explains. “They’ll see that these actions caused by trauma may not have the effect they desperately seek. Sometimes, life is just a gamble. There is no control in some situations. Acceptance of this fact may appear as a loss of motivation but is actually a sign of a healthy drive instead of one that may border on obsession.”
So, it’s not that your motivation has decreased, but rather your body is no longer operating in panic mode. From there, you can find motivation for an authentic and more empowered place rather than being driven by fear of past trauma repeating itself.
How to overcome trauma drive
There are things you can do to overcome trauma drive and harness genuine motivation. Dr. Frederik says the most important thing is seeking help and finding someone you can share how you feel with, whether it’s loved ones or a therapist.
Giving yourself time to process things before responding is also a useful technique Dr. Frederick recommends. “Sometimes the best action is no action if you don’t have to make a decision at that moment,” she says. “When we are basing a decision influenced by past trauma, we are often not using our best or most logical thinking.
Making rest a consistent priority is also an important component of healing. “Pamper yourself with exercise, sleep, nourishing food, a massage or facial, and a little mindless entertainment,” Dr. Frederick says. “It's crucial to get off the hamster wheel and reprogram your mind and body.”
And lastly, remember that healing takes time. “Be patient and allow yourself time to process your issues,” Dr. Frederick says. “With time, you will be able to overcome your trauma.”
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