When Does Trauma Show Up?

What is the average amount of time between an early life traumatic event and the manifestation of symptoms? The answer might surprise you. 

By Momentous Institute | Mar 09, 2021
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At our 2019 Changing the Odds Conference, addiction psychiatrist, psychotherapist and international neuroscience educator Dr. Christo Pallas shared a statistic that surprised our audience.

He asked, “What do you believe is the average amount of time between an early life traumatic event and the manifestation of symptoms? What do you think – is it a couple of days after that people start to have symptoms? Is it six months? A couple hours? What would you guess?” He then asked the audience to shout out answers. People called out “weeks?”, “months”?

Then Dr. Pallas shared this:

The average time lapse between a traumatic event and the manifestation of symptoms is nine years.

There was a pause in the room.

According to Dr. Pallas, someone can have a traumatic event and “just be quiet” for nine years. He calls this the “silent period”. Someone may have a traumatic event as a young child, and not show any symptoms at all. And then, many years later, along comes another life stressor. This new life stressor can reawaken a stressor that is incubating in the background.

This is important for us to know and remember. If you’re working with an eighteen year old who seems completely fine, and then has an uncharacteristic, completely overblown reaction to the SAT exam, or if you have an 11 year old who, ever since starting middle school, suddenly gets agitated and can’t calm himself down… well, it could be that the SAT or the start of middle school is too much. It could be that there’s something about this particular exam or the middle school environment that is challenging and causing significant stress that needs to be explored.

But – there could be something more.

It’s possible that a child who is exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior following a life stressor is reacting to more than just the current stressor. It could be an incubating stressor that’s been slowly boiling on the back burner as well.

It’s not an exact formula: you can’t just take their current age, subtract nine years and figure out what was going on at that time to uncover the truth. But it’s helpful to know that something happening could potentially trace back 5 or 10 years. Likely when you start digging, the early traumatic experience formed some narrative in the child’s mind. Perhaps early violence caused the child to feel unsafe, and much later in life, an active shooter drill at school digs up those old traumas. Maybe growing up in a chaotic home environment caused a child to crave structure and consistency, and many years later, a new routine could cause the child to feel out of control. It could be that an early traumatic experience left a child feeling abandoned or neglected, and later, not getting accepted into a dream college feels overwhelmingly crushing.

So if you’re working with a child and you can’t quite figure out what’s going on, remember there may be more to the story. As always, we encourage you to chase the why to get to the root of the issue in order to respond appropriately.