It’s almost impossible to appreciate just how many decisions we make in a given day. These choices range from the mundane to the adventurous. All the ways we gather and appraise information add up to shape our lives and our way of living. What we decide and why speaks volumes about what we’ve been through — especially during childhood.

Individuals who have endured traumatic experiences at a young age are impacted in a variety of ways. For example, trauma can wreak havoc on our decision-making process. People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, can struggle with emotional and cognitive issues that alter how they make decisions.

How Your Brain Makes Decisions

In a typically functioning brain, stimuli are stored for future reference. When you encounter a situation that’s similar to something you’ve dealt with in the past, all that data plays a role in your present decisions. Someone with PTSD has had this system altered by trauma.

Negative memories have been stored in a dysfunctional manner. Thus, it become the norm to remain in a state of high alert. In this state, it’s not possible to make consistently rational decisions. Obviously, this is less than ideal, as your ability to make rapid, accurate choices is damaged in several ways.

Intrusive Thoughts

Unresolved trauma often manifests in intrusive thoughts. People are subject to negative, fearful memories surfacing as nightmares, flashbacks, and more. Not only is this jolting and shocking, it can feel confusing. The person in question cannot automatically differentiate between real and imagined, past and present.

Cognitive Function

As touched on above, a trauma survivor can’t rely on typical levels of processing and cognitive function. The result is frequently a misinterpretation of circumstances. Such cognitive errors become temporarily encoded in your psyche. When faced with a situation that somehow reminds you of a cognitive error, any decision you make will be influenced by a wide range of counterproductive input. You may feel rational but if your foundation is shaky, your conclusion will likely be flawed.

photo of a man sitting at a table holding a to go coffee cupHallucinations

Think of this as a more extreme version of intrusive thoughts. PTSD flashbacks can be visual and auditory. In some instances, painful memories can reemerge as voices or images created due to flawed information processing. Needless to say, when hearing voices or seeing images that aren’t there, you are not exactly well-positioned to make self-loving decisions.

How Trauma Influences Major Life Decisions

Life doesn’t slow down for trauma survivors. Like anyone else, they have to make major life decisions — even as they work toward recovery. Choices related to health, family, money, and more won’t wait for you to heal. However, as discussed above, you will be challenged in terms of working around trauma-induced cognitive issues. Therefore, people with PTSD must become very aware of how this disorder can distort everyday decision-making.

You’ll need patience from loved ones along with some trusted allies to help guide you when it feels confusing or overwhelming. And of course, you will need to work with a trauma-informed therapist (see below). At the same time, there are self-help steps you can take to make decisions feel daunting. For example:

  • Accept what’s happening and that you very much can recover.
  • Engage in daily self-care related to sleep patterns, eating habits, and physical activity.
  • Do not self-medicate.
  • Stay in touch with others and resist social withdrawal .

Therapy Is a Wise Decision

The road to recovery often runs through an experienced therapist’s office. Your weekly sessions are the safe space you need to identify your needs and how to fulfill them. I invite you to get in touch soon so we can talk more about this healing journey in trauma therapy.