Those affected by trauma can sometimes appear to make strange or adverse decisions. Some may change their hair dramatically, whilst others may quit a job they were seemingly happy in for no apparent reason.
Although they might look like the wrong decisions to onlookers, they make crystal clear sense to the person living with trauma.
Why Do We Make Trauma Driven Decisions?
Trauma impacts all parts of a person’s life. It influences their emotions, their brain, and, unsurprisingly, their decisions. Those struggling with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (C-PTSD) often find their decision-making alters after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. This is because people make decisions based on emotion rather than logic.
Research has shown that those who experience childhood trauma may encounter moral decision-making in adulthood. Here, decisions typically tend to be more utilitarian than others. These findings also speculate that this utilitarian style may be associated with protection, with the person attempting to shield themselves from unnecessary emotional harm.
Those who experience trauma can have trouble regulating emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, and shame. This is known as emotional dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation affects how people dealing with trauma make decisions. For example, some individuals can struggle with feeling too much or feeling numb. In turn, they use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to curb these feelings. They may also participate in other unhealthy behaviours, such as gambling or overworking.
This dysregulation stems from the changes that trauma creates in the brain. Here, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for sending warning alerts to our body, sends us a message whenever it feels like we may be in danger. However, for those living with trauma, the amygdala can’t recognise the difference between a past threat and a current threat. If a person is triggered, the amygdala responds as if experiencing the actual traumatic event for the first time.
Unfortunately, this has a significant impact on decision-making. Upon experiencing a trigger, an individual may make unwise decisions to escape the situation. These can include some of the following responses:
- Fight – Struggling or lashing out to escape a scenario which they perceive as dangerous.
- Flight – Running or hiding to get away from a situation.
- Flop – Doing what you are told without protest to get through a problem.
- Fawn – Attempting to please someone who is harming you.
- Freeze – Being unable to move or do anything.
Trauma-driven decisions can include any of these actions. For instance, a flight response to a trigger may suddenly cause someone to quit their job or break up with their partner. In contrast, someone in an unhealthy relationship might flop and stay with the other person, as their trauma drives them to attempt to get through the situation.
Avoiding Trauma-Driven Decisions
Breaking the habit of making trauma-driven decisions can be challenging. However, doing so benefits many. Once an individual can step back and look at a situation without reacting instinctively, they will be able to make the best decisions for themselves and their well-being.
To avoid trauma-driven decisions, doing the following may help.
- Recognise your triggers – Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them or plan for them in the future. In turn, this can help you when you’re trying to make decisions. Particular dates or certain places may see you encounter pessimistic emotions. For this very reason, it may be best to try and avoid them when trying to make important decisions.
- Talk to someone – Trauma can make it challenging to open up to others, but you don’t have to discuss your trauma to secure help when it comes to making a decision. You can talk to a trusted loved one or a professional about a decision that you want to make.
- Forgive yourself – If you have made a trauma-driven decision in the past that you deeply regret, know that you deserve to forgive yourself. Mistakes happen – it’s what you do moving forwards that counts.
- Keep a journal – A journal is a great space to scribble down your thoughts and feelings to help you process them and aid in your decision-making. If you’re faced with a decision that has a deadline, try writing down everything that comes to mind about it for a set amount of time. From here, take the time to read over your notes later to process them better.
- Give yourself time – When it comes to making significant decisions, give yourself plenty of time to think, feel, and process so that you can make the best choice. Try not to put yourself on a deadline. Doing so may put pressure on yourself that could result in making a wrong decision. You can even give yourself time for small decisions. For example, read the menu ahead of time, or wait to place that online order.
Preventing trauma-driven decisions is not an easy process. However, by choosing to actively work on how you make decisions, you can teach yourself the best ways to manage your triggers and make good decisions that work for you.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from vicarious trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Larsen, Emmett M. et al. “Effects Of Childhood Trauma On Adult Moral Decision-Making: Clinical Correlates And Insights From Bipolar Disorder”. Journal Of Affective Disorders, vol 244, 2019, pp. 180-186. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jad.2018.10.002. Accessed 8 Nov 2021.
 Zotev, Vadim et al. “Real-Time Fmri Neurofeedback Training Of The Amygdala Activity With Simultaneous EEG In Veterans With Combat-Related PTSD”. Neuroimage: Clinical, vol 19, 2018, pp. 106-121. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2018.04.010. Accessed 8 Nov 2021.