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The compounding effect of trauma

A stack of jenga block (wood block game) with pieces gone near the base, leaving it vulnerable to collapse. This represents how trauma has compouding effects over time.

Why does trauma erode your resilience? Over time, trauma makes your brain more sensitive to threat, and as a result, stressors begin to have a compounding effect: What was once easily endured is now the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.


Remember back to your teenaged years when you could seamlessly recover from stressful moments? Maybe you worried about a test in school but instantly felt relieved and even ecstatic once it was over. Resilience came easy back then.


Then you got older, and stress seemed to hold on longer. Maybe it became harder to feel the joy of relief after your accomplishments. Maybe by college or grad school, finishing an exam would only result in a desperate need to sleep or go out for a beer.


At some point in your career, it likely became routine to stop noticing when you reached big milestones or accomplishments. You’d be halfway into the next milestone, with no energy or desire to celebrate your achievements when they happen, and even reluctance to acknowledge your contributions at all.


It's easy to write off this erosion of resilience as being a normal part of aging – or a normal result of living a full and busy life. But, in fact, what’s happening is your nervous system is still holding onto stressors and traumas that you had no time, space or grace to fully process. That’s how residual stressors accumulate into overall nervous system sensitivity.


It’s natural for a nervous system to become overloaded, but rather than allowing recovery time, we tend to beat ourselves up for it. We punish ourselves by behaving as if we still had all the resilience that we had back before the accumulated stressors stacked up. We rationalize our “push through it” habits to prove that we “still have it,” unwilling to recognize how we’re more easily triggered and less tolerant to stresses now. Then the compounding effect really accelerates.


This is what happened to me in my late thirties. In fact, many neurodivergent women notice similar patterns in their mid- to late-thirties as midlife fundamentally transforms our priorities. The pressures of running a household, raising children, managing career pressures, keeping a social calendar and so forth become blatantly too much, and when we consider paring back, we look around and say, If everyone else can do it all, why can't I?


It's this precise question that leads many of us to a diagnosis – autism, ADHD, cancer, auto-immune disorders, you name it. These wake-up calls summon us to start prioritizing our health over so-called success. I am different. I am not failing. I’ve exceeded expectations for so long, now it is time to ease into what is true for me.


Like most people, I kept pushing through stressors for years and years, excited at first by how much pressure I could handle, then astonished that I seemed to snap at smaller and smaller triggers. At age 38, I suffered a major mental breakdown. Because I’d never found a good enough way to self-regulate, my brain grew hypersensitive to the slightest hint of threat – tone of voice, subtle looks across the conference room table, meetings to which I was uninvited – and my brain believed I would literally die if it didn’t extract me from the situation.


It's both cute and sad to look back at how I thought I could “put myself back together” on a three-week leave of absence. If only I’d allowed myself the proper space to heal. If only I hadn’t resorted to my favorite go-to protective behavior: quit my job to dive right into the next big challenge. Regardless, I’m glad I finally found the tools to start healing in earnest – and those tools came in the form of nervous system training and rehabilitation.


Applied Neurology is the quickest, fastest and safest route to reducing threat in your nervous system. You can use it to restore enough basic neural capacity that other healthy habits start to become possible again:

  • With an inch more capacity, it might not feel so overwhelming to plan healthier meals.

  • With two inches more capacity, a workout might suddenly feel preferable to binge drinking on a Sunday afternoon.

  • With three inches more capacity, you might stop waking up three, four, five times at night, or you might start falling back to sleep faster when it happens.


That’s how resilience gets restored.


Because applied neurology uses very simple, very direct and very customizable tools to communicate safety to your nervous system – without demanding more than 30 to 40 minutes a day – it is by far the most impactful way to lower your overall stress load and start making bigger changes more possible.


Listen, there is no shame in the exhaustion you feel. There is no shame in the sense of burnout, the loss of joy, the temptation to escape it all – none of it. To live a life is to accumulate stress. Let’s just make sure you have the tools you need to transform that stress into growth, and let’s start by reestablishing capacity in your nervous system.


This spring, I’ll be releasing a video mini-series on the compounding effects of trauma and how to heal your nervous system. Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter so you get the announcement (and insider discounts) when it goes live!

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