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Does Early Trauma Have To Remain CATaclysmic?

By Amy Austin, RN, PsyD, LMFT
Was previous trauma the cause for sweet Mazel’s crazy cat behavior?

My last article, “Embracing the Unexpected” (July/August 2021), chronicled a severely wounded cat that showed up at my door this last April. He was a mere five pounds of sick and tired. That was the bad news. The good news is he is now thriving — physically. The mental emotional part is in question, which got me thinking about how early trauma can affect us. 

Now, I’m not trying to anthropomorphize Mazel’s mental/emotional state from what I assume was an attack or escape that nearly cost him his life, but there are similarities. And, we are all well aware of how animals blossom when rescued from shelters.

As Mazel healed physically, his personality began to change (“Hellcat” comes to mind). When he first came to me he was meek, clingy, and docile. The vet staff made sure to tell me what a wonderful cat he was with all he had been through. Looking back now, I understand he wasn’t feeling well or (and here I go again anthropomorphizing) he was manipulating the hell out of us all. He started acting out: nipping, hyper, super clingy. It started to become the daily norm — to the point of angst and guilt at the thought of re-homing him.

Then I pondered the after-effects of trauma:

  • Inability to relate optimally with others/interpersonal relationship struggles
  • Mood dysregulation and difficulties with impulse control
  • Heightened anxiety and or depression
  • Difficulty forming attachments and keeping them
  • Fear and a sense of helplessness 
  • Low self-worth
  • Difficulty taking risks and or reaching out
  • Anger/rage as a way to subconsciously distance others
  • Self-medicating with addictive behaviors such as drugs/alcohol, gambling, eating, sex, spending
  • Codependent behaviors such as people-pleasing to the point of little or no reciprocity in relationships
  • The appearance of the wounded inner child showing up and wreaking havoc in adulthood 

The understanding that Mazel’s behavioral issues stemmed from a primal need to survive when angst and anxiety had claimed a home was the ah-ha moment for me that allowed the door to open for some positive change that continues today. They don’t call it “slowbriety” for nothing.

If you are dealing with a trauma history, there is hope and I always sit in a hopeful chair:

  • Acknowledge and recognize trauma so that it doesn’t make an uncomfortably familiar home in adulthood.
  • Seek support from a trusted psychiatrist, psychologist and or psychotherapist. Don’t isolate. You don’t have to figure this out alone!
  • Reframe and replace painfully negative thoughts with new and more adaptive ones.
  • Reclaim control and a sense of empowerment.
  • We never forget, but one can begin a journey of moving on while gently letting go.
  • Daily doses of patience, compassion, self-love and affirmation are a must!
  • Laughter IS the best medicine with trusted friends, family and funny movies.

Mazel is on his way from what felt like a CATaclysmic situation to a wonderful life here with yours truly. After all, isn’t that what we all yearn for and deserve?

Dr. Amy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFC# 41252) and doctor of clinical psychology in Rancho Mirage. She can be reached at (760) 774.0047.

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