The very short guide to writing trauma

Trauma is a staple in novels. It's also very difficult to write correctly if you have no experience with it. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend that you just skip this guide and pick up a book called The Body Keeps The Score. It's a wonderful and very accessible book on the subject of trauma and most of the stuff written here is in that book, too. This is just the immensely shortened version for authors who aren't going to pick up a 400 page book just for a character portrayal. This guide is in no way a self-help guide, and it is immensely simplified to fit into a couple pages. Please keep this in mind as you read. 

TW for mentions of, well, of traumatizing content. 

Trauma is a long-term emotional response to something overwhelming and awful happening to a person, such as physical violence, r*pe, or natural disasters. Many psychologists consider trauma symptoms to be a kind of mental self-defense - what has happened to the traumatized individual is simply so terrible that they cannot manage the experience. The symptoms of trauma - including but certainly not limited to substance abuse, flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, numbness, self-harm, fits of confusion, rage and panic, and even suicidal tendencies - however horrid, becomes the less painful and confusing route to take. 

When we encounter dangerous situations, our bodies are flooded with hormones that helps us deal with it, the most famous of which is adrenaline. This hormonal survival cocktail sends us into states like fight, flight and shock. When all goes well, this will help us run or fight back so that we can save our lives, and when we're out of danger again the hormones return to normal. Bad situation begins, bad situation ends, and we can move on.

With trauma, that 'return to normal' doesn't happen. A traumatized person remains in states of hyperarousal. Their hormonal and nervous systems do not calm down, and continues to produce stress hormones, potentially for the rest of that persons life. 

Trauma can occur from sudden events, like a car crash, or form over time, which is often called C-PTSD (complex posttraumatic stress disorder). C-PTSD forms from a lower (but still significant) level of stress being released into the body for a long period of time, whereas PTSD without the C is more commonly associated with the sudden events. 

One way to explain trauma is that it is similar to living two lives simultaneously. One life is the here and now - the ordinary reality that we all share. The second life is frozen in time. For this part of the person, that horrible moment never ended, and their attention is constantly split between these two worlds, these two states. They may rationally understand that they are safe and that their car crash is over, and yet they may sit in the safety of their own apartment, years or decades later with not a car in sight, and this strange part of their mind is still in the car crash, still afraid, still in physical pain, still hearing the metal creak and bend. To live with trauma is to manage these two separate lives, at all times. Sometime one 'world' is more prominent than the other, and to 'manage' trauma in day to day life is to make sure that the 'here and now' world is the predominant one. A person may need to head into the 'frozen world', however, to actually heal and process their trauma. 

They may not be aware that this is happening in their mind - it's possible to dissociate to the point where one forgets that the trauma ever happened. But that doesn't mean this person is not suffering. Their method to deal with it may, for example, be emotional numbness. They don't consciously feel the fear, but perhaps the price of that is that they don't feel anything else, either, and are emotionally cut off from anything that might be able to give their life beauty and meaning. They could have amazing families and friends and feel like shit because they cannot love them back or even grieve them when they die. Some who aren't very self-aware may go through their entire lives wondering what is wrong with them. Some simply assume that what they went through wasn't that bad, maybe because that's what they were told, and they should be able to deal with it and not be a weak little sissy. Other people deny their own trauma until it results in physical responses that force them to seek medical help, such as having a panic attack and mistaking it for a heart attack because of the crushing chest pain. Some people find an emotional outlet in some interest of theirs, and may seem very successful on the outside - in reality, the outlet that has let them become successful in their workplace may be the only part of their lives where they feel alive and in control. 

Here are some common symptoms of trauma. Remember however that each traumatic situation - and each traumatized person - is a unique case. Not every symptom is visible to others. Consider this list as very incomplete. Please look a symptom up in more detail if you want to write about it properly, as there is a lot written out there. Which symptoms a character would be likely to get depends on who they were before the trauma and what happened to them during that event. 

The most famous, commonly portrayed symptom of trauma and PTSD is probably the flashback. If you've never experienced a flashback, you could think of it as the blurring between these "two worlds" I spoke of above, or the trauma world becoming more real and the real world ceasing to seem as real and maybe even disappearing entirely until the person with the flashback is physically at the scene of their traumatic event and forgetting everything else. If you've ever woken up but kept dreaming for a few seconds afterwards and you were both in your bed and in your dream at the same time, it's a similar feeling to that. During flashbacks, the body can start to move in ways that reflects the way it moved (or tried to move) back then. In an extreme case, an ex-soldier may find himself back on the battlefield, fighting back against an enemy soldier, only to come back to it and realize he just attacked his wife. In a much milder case, someone might remember the smell of spilled gasoline and all that happens is that their nose twitches a bit and they space out for a sec and then they're back and it's over. Flashbacks, like most PTSD symptoms, can be triggered by things that reminds us of the trauma. It could be a person, a smell, a color, something that comes up in the conversation, anything really. 

Fits of emotion can be a very similar symptom as the flashbacks, except what the person is remembering isn't necessarily the scene itself, but the emotion they felt during or after the traumatic event. Their bodies re-enacts whatever unholy hormonal cocktail it thinks they need to survive because it assumes it's still in harms way. 

Self-harm is another commonly portrayed symptom. You know how, if you're about to take a vaccine shot, you might pinch your leg to distract yourself from the pain of the needle? Self-harm such as cutting is often the more extreme version of this. The emotional pain - or the emotional numbness - can drive the person to inflict a lesser pain on themselves as a distraction. 

Addictions and substance abuse are also a way to numb what is really going on in the persons inner world. Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, binge-eating and many other vices may even become unlikely tools of self-control as it may be the lesser evil compared to what the person may feel - or do - without it. 

Gaining fat or building muscle are two not-uncommon responses to trauma. There are two common reasons for this - one is about attractiveness and the other is the intimidation factor. A woman who has been sexually abused may consciously choose to become overweight because it makes her less attractive to men and, therefore, she feel safer. A man may become overweight because he feels safer being the biggest guy around. Both men and women may choose bodybuilding for similar reasons - it is safer to look intimidating, it is safer to look like the person no one wants to mess with. It also isn't unusual for physical exercise to become someones emotional outlet. 

Numbness is very common. Dissociation and derealization is to live life in a state of autopilot that feels like a dream. The person just doesn't feel much - things don't matter. This might save them from feeling very unpleasant things, but also makes their lives seem almost meaningless, like watching a movie. 

Sleep disorders are very common. Insomnia for an obvious reason - the body is flooded with stress hormones. Relaxation and sleep becomes difficult for the same reason it might be hard to fall asleep after drinking an energy drink. Some are afraid to go to sleep, due to nightmares, another common one. 

Guilt. Survivors guilt for example. But another common one is people who were not in the right state of mind during or after their trauma, and who committed acts of rage, vengeance, and violence on people who may or may not have deserved it. As The Body Keeps The Score points out, it is difficult to return home after a war and be happy about your childs first step, knowing that you have killed a child just like your own. Other times, people just feel guilty because of low self esteem - someone who has been told all their life that they are useless will likely believe it. 

Difficulty connecting to others is perhaps the most pervasive symptom of trauma. We feel isolated. Alone. The guilt makes it difficult to reach out, as is the feeling that others would not understand. Other people may seem intimidating and dangerous for a thousand reasons. Survivor groups may be very helpful in connecting to other people, but they may develop a "you're either in the group or outside of it" mentality for all the already mentioned reasons. 

Adrenaline and danger. A lot of traumatized people becomes adrenaline addicts and seek out danger. This could be a form of controlling other emotions - they could use adrenaline to overpower, say, an ongoing fit of rage, and when the adrenaline goes back down, they're not angry anymore. Or it falls into the same category as the drugs, where it simply helps them feel more alive and not just a walking void of nothing. 

If you are writing trauma, you'll want to consider how a traumatic moment feels and is remembered. A dangerous situation becomes a traumatizing situation when we can no longer fully comprehend or handle what is happening. It's common to remember only disorienting snapshots of the event, and nothing in between, because they were in shock and their brain was too busy keeping them alive to prioritize understanding stuff. What can be remembered is often very intense, though. A woman who was sexually assaulted may remember the smell of alcohol on her assaulters breath in a very vivid way, too vividly to be able to stand the same smell in other contexts again after that, yet not actually be able to recall the whole event. 

Someone could remember the back of the gray shirt of the person who left the room before them. Little hands clinging to their clothes. The sound of sirens. The sound the TV made when the roof beams crashed over it when it blocked the doorway. The color of the wallpaper lit by flames. But between that and the emergency room, they might not remember a single thing. 

Obviously not every person who experience danger becomes traumatized, so what is it that causes it? For authors, one somewhat simplified but useful way of looking at things is to think of trauma as a three step process. 

There is, not necessarily in any particular order: Seeking help, resonding, and helplessness/trauma. 

1. When we first sense danger, our first response is to seek help. Maybe someone can save us. Maybe we can team up with someone against the big bad evil. Maybe someone knows the way out, knows what to do. Scared children cling to their mothers, and sufficiently scared adults may call out for their mothers too. If there's no one on our side we can join or who will help us, that's bad, and we know that. 

2. Fight or flight. We are flooded with all of these stress hormones in order for us to take more efficient action - we run away, we fight, we struggle. We do everything we possibly can to get out of the bad situation. If this works, we generally don't get traumatized. It might be a terribly bad situation none the less, but generally speaking it won't lead to that permanent, measurable spike in stress hormones. The hormones go up, we fight/flight successfully, and then they go down. 

3. If this fails, we enter the third stage - helplessness. No one can or will help us, we cannot run or fight, there's nothing we can do about the situation. Hormones are sending us into overdrive so that we can act - and yet for whatever reason we cannot. This could be a woman held down by her r*pist, an injury stopping a soldier from fleeing the enemy, we are trapped, tied up maybe, or there's just nowhere to run and no way to defeat the big bad guy. We're at the mercy of the situation. When all our options are exhausted and we're still in the shit, is where "dangerous" becomes "traumatic". 

Now, not every traumatizing event will follow these exact step, but as an author, if you keep these in mind, you can write a convincing enough scene. Most of the unconvincing trauma scenes I read and watch in media skips one of these steps. For example, the author wants to make the MC seem more like a cool lone wolf or something, so they don't look for others to help or be helped by when shit hits the fan. This is the correct choice in some situations - especially if the character already has a trauma from earlier and deems that synching up with the people around them is the even greater danger - but we are very hardwired to connect with and team up with people when there's danger. It's a base instinct. Danger = reject rationality, return to monke. There needs to be a clear reason why someone skips this step, and "it doesn't look cool enough" won't cut it if you're aiming for realism. That just makes the scene seem not bad enough to warrant teaming up with others, which means it probably wouldn't be that traumatic. If you want to skip this step, my advice is to do so consciously and work around it. 

Another common mistake is skipping the third step, the helplessness. I've seen this cause a discord between what happened to the character and how they reacted to it afterwards - if the readers are leaving comments about how the MC is a weak crybaby or something along those lines, this step is often missing from the traumatizing scene. Helplessness is perhaps the heaviest gut punch of a traumatizing scene. It doesn't need to be super dramatic. The villain doesn't need to physically tie the hero up and make them watch him kill their baby. They just need to realize that there is nothing for them left that they can do about the situation and that needs to make them feel like shit. 

But always remember that there are exceptions. You've probably heard about women who did not fight back or protest their own r*pes. They go into shock as their first reaction. They may not know what to do, or they already have a trauma, already have that learned helplessness, and some part of their body and mind says "yeah, I already know that step 1 and 2 doesn't work". Nothing is absolute in psychology.

Healing trauma can be a loooooong process, and this is a guide for authors, not a self-help guide. Keep in mind that this is simplified. You know your characters best. Generally speaking to get your character to heal believably, you can use the same model as above, but reverse it. In no particular order (although it's often nice to have symmetry, such as steps 1, 2, 3 for the traumatizing event and then 3, 2, 1 for healing the character again), you should at least consider the following three things: 

1. Social connection. When we are traumatized, it puts a rift between us and other people. It is difficult to trust, difficult to love, difficult to connect with other humans. But we are human and we still need that connection. If getting traumatized is like your character stepping over the treshold of a door and out into the cold, then healing means they have to return back inside, back to a space where they can trust, love, and feel loved, however that may express itself for this individual character. 
While it's technically possible to defeat trauma alone without any support, there's often something else that takes its place, such as a pet or a religion that a person feel supported by. Remember that trauma is immensely difficult to live with, to the point where some people will rather commit suicide. It's certainly not a weakness to seek or accept help, and your character will seem more human for it. After a frightening or traumatizing event, we need other people in order to feel safe. 

2. Action. Do you remember that hormonal stress cocktail of fight or flight that the traumatized persons body keeps producing? Yeah, don't forget about that detail. They're still in there, making life more difficult. It's one of the reasons why psychologists will say that exercise is good for mental health. Many people with PTSD are fidgety because their body is telling them to struggle. It's still telling them to run, to fight, to punch someone in the face. If your story is an action story, you might not need to be very creative with this - have them beat up the bad guy, finish what they started. If it's something harder to fight (you can't punch a car crash that traumatized you years ago) then perhaps you can have the character take a kickboxing class. Taking 'action' is something that will help bring your character arc to closure. Ever had that feeling where you just want to hit a punching bag or something to take out your frustrations? Let your character have that cathartic moment. 

3. Agency. This differs from 'action', in that agency is meaningful action. If step 2 can be satisfied with violence, step 3 has to be fulfilled by returning the characters ability to act according to their values, rather than just doing what they must in order to survive. This is immensely difficult to do for a traumatized person, who might be very tightly wired to focus on their own survival and who is - to varying extent - still struggling with the helplessness of the last checklist. This could be the same action as step 2, but both things need to happen. 

You can ofc write a satisfying healing arc even without all of these steps, this isn't a religion you gotta follow or anything. But generally speaking, in most of the unsatisfying healing arcs I've watched and read, one or more of these steps are missing. In the worst case scenario, it feels like the trauma is just handwaved away. That's quite annoying. The reward for sticking in there just doesn't arrive even if the hero wins and defeats the bad guy. 

This is actually quite common in romance novels, where getting together with the love interest somehow cures either the MC or the love interest of their past trauma. Certainly, a supportive relationship can be the key to healing, but without the other two steps (especially step 3...), what they risk ending up with is just an unbalanced and unhealthy relationship. 

And there you have it, a very quick and dirty guide to writing psychological trauma. 

Re: The very short guide to writing trauma

You beat us to this. We were writing up something like this over the last couple of days, but big props to you for going through all this.

We will add onto this, because there's other stuff that wasn't covered that is very important. Don't just read about trauma. Look up and see what trauma looks like, because you can read about it all you want, but you won't ever be able to fully grasp the weight of it until you see it for yourself. Depending on the kind of trauma you're writing, there are plenty of visual examples. Their mannerisms, how they look at people, how they react to the small details. All of that. This leads us into the second point we need to cover with this.

Take care of your mental health. Writing trauma can and will impact you if you obsess on it enough. If you dive deep enough into a character with trauma, then their trauma can become yours. Not entirely, but maybe you get uncomfortable looking at light coming from under a door when you didn't before, or maybe you're more conscious and worried about people standing behind you. Small things like that. Don't be afraid to step back and take some time if it becomes too much for you.

This is something of a point 2.5 from above, but if your main character is the one with trauma, then write it in first person. It sure can be done in third, but trauma such as this is internal, which is perfect for first person, but be warned that the above point about gaining their trauma is far more likely with first person as well. It's up to you to decide where to go from there.

Thank you for posting this thread again as well, Haust.

Re: The very short guide to writing trauma

I'll add something that ca cause somewhat of a mini-trauma: the epic brag+epic fail combo. When you feel so confident and proud of something that you did/will do, thinking you're gonna score a perfect 100, and then realize you scored... not even 0, but fvcking -100!! When you think you're gonna be a hotshot, and then fvck things up and make it worse instead, that drains all your self-confidence in one go.

Examples I can think of:

—Naive people who fell for scams like Dan Lok's (yeaahh, we're business men, we gonna change da world)

—clumsy (you help carry the plates, but suddenly break them instead)

—any skill you suck at (drawing, singing, etc.)

Take note. There has to be the brag! It's okay to be shit at something and know you're shit. But thinking like you're the messiah and being shit?? Oooooo, I wouldn't even wish that on my worst enemies, that's a death sentence.

(I'll argue that, episode 18 of Re:zero, what brought Subaru to the edge was not being unhelpful nor accidentally killing Emilia. If it was just that, he could still carry on with, "No one could've predicted that, it's not my fault, it's not fair to blame me for that."

No! What really killed him was the epic brag! He bragged so much, and then fvcked things up so bad, it veered him to the opposite end of the spectrum and think, "I'll fvcj things up no matter what I do, even just by breathing. Subaru dumbass, fvcking liability to everyone, why don't you just disappear right now, it'd seriously do us a favor.")

Re: The very short guide to writing trauma

I found it was one thing to write trauma, but the dialog around the interjections I was and still struggle with, I found this guide earlier on this interjection/interruption. Most grammar programs do not understand either. 

Use an em dash inside the quotation marks to cut off the character mid-dialogue, usually with either (A) another character speaking or (B) an external action.
  • A: "Look over there—"
    "By the bookshelves," Jamie added before Sheila could clarify. 
  • B: "Look over there—"
    A stack of boxes clattered to the ground.