You’re an established adult small business owner, full-time or still side hustling. Life hasn’t always been easy, sure… but you made it to where you are with creativity, grit, and hard work.

So what’s the use of dwelling on the past?

I don’t support dwelling. It’s unhealthy, uncomfortable, and unproductive.

I do support seeking insight into the impact our past has on our present. Only then can we take tailored action to be the best—and most fulfilled—we can be.

So, could lasting effects from tough past experiences make business growth and management tougher, too?

It’s not the most pleasant question to ponder, but an important one.

But why would affirming old, traumatic life experiences even matter to business today?

Because if you don’t know something is fixable and within your control, then you won’t try.

And you’ll still suffer the hidden effects.

For instance, we know that other people and their responses aren’t fixable.

Feel anxious during public speaking? We try self-development tools—Toastmasters, exposure therapy, etc.—to address or “fix” that anxiety.

We don’t try to fix the audience.

Similarly, we know past events aren’t fixable. If we flubbed a public speech, there’s no going back.

The problem comes when we hold similar views about trauma.

The lasting effects of past trauma are “fixable”—or rather, resolvable—things. We just have to know how to, and why it’s important.

But before we can learn how to resolve lasting impacts of past trauma affecting performance today, we must first understand what classifies as a “traumatic” experience. Because many of us who’ve experienced trauma don’t even realize it.

The Many Definitions of Psychological Trauma: Which is Right?

What is “trauma”? Ask 10 different people and you may get 10 different answers. Is there a “right” way to define it?

To clarify, I refer to the psychological kind in my work (i.e., mental/emotional pain from neglect, abuse, etc.), not the physical kind (i.e. a broken bone).

Knowing what this word refers to empowers us with the knowledge to “fix” it. (Or rather, to resolve or process it.)

Here’s what it isn’t—and it’s important.

The word “trauma” is often used to describe situations that cause great emotional distress. Merriam Webster defines it as “a very difficult or unpleasant experience.”

However, behavioral health professionals recognize that the experience, the thing that happened, is actually the cause. Not the trauma.

The “trauma” itself is our emotional response to that terrible event.”

I’ll say that again:

The “trauma” is our body’s response to what happened. It is not what happened itself.

That’s super important.

Because if we think of trauma as “the thing that happened to us” (like past emotional neglect) … we can’t fix that. The past is already gone.

But one thing we can control—to a degree—is our response.

What’s disturbing enough to cause it?

We know trauma is a person’s emotional response to a terrible event. But what’s “terrible” is subjective. Each one of us can respond quite differently to the same event.

In the late ‘90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente did a study to measure the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (traumatic experiences) on long-term life and health outcomes.

They measured child traumatic stress in three main categories:

1. physical abuse (being “spanked” with hard items, “spanked” until you had marks, being slapped, pushed, etc.) or neglect (not having enough to eat, having to wear dirty clothes).

2. emotional abuse (being insulted, put down, cursed at, threatened, etc.) or neglect (feeling unsupported, unloved, unwanted, not being paid attention to, etc.), and

3. household dysfunction (parental divorce or separation, incarceration, substance dependency, psychological illness, etc.).

Those are often the most common categories and experiences we think of when discussing this topic. However, there are numerous other traumatic happenings that fall outside of those or are even more nuanced.

They might include:

  • being involved in an auto accident
  • being bullied
  • being gaslit
  • having surgery
  • breaking a bone
  • leaving a long-term relationship
  • experiencing blatant discrimination
  • the passing of a loved one
  • being betrayed
  • etc.

Note, although a few examples above cause physical trauma, I still refer only to the psychological kind: the emotional response to those physical experiences.

When does old trauma become something I need to address?

You might be wondering why, if trauma is an emotional response, it doesn’t resolve itself sometime after the experience.

To put that into perspective, consider someone who’s lost a beloved pet. That’s traumatic for most people.

The resulting feelings don’t spontaneously dissolve; they just get easier to deal with over time.

This “emotional response” that the APA calls “trauma” is a very complex physiological process. To simplify that process:

A terrible event happens.

We feel very distressed.

This all activates our body’s security alarm and defense systems.

It’s important to note that this terrible event gets stored in our nervous system as a “sensory memory” if we don’t heal from it.

This is a memory that’s strongly associated with sight, hearing, smell, touch, or taste.

To protect us from danger, our body constantly uses our senses to scan the environment for perceived threats. But now, we have this old trauma “recorded” in our nervous system (to help protect us from it happening again).

This is important.

Why? Because in stressful situations that have similar sensory qualities—similar sights, sounds, smells, etc.—our body is reminded of the original traumatic experience.

This activates our body’s defense system (stress response) again.

If we don’t do something to address our response to present-day stressors, those reactions become even more intense.

And they start spilling over into other areas of our lives … affecting how we run our businesses, and how we show up at work.

Here’s how healing effects of old trauma can help business grow faster.

We’re back full circle.

Unresolved trauma can manifest as unwanted habits and behaviors that cause “self-sabotage,” or that somehow stifle our progress.

Particularly for solo founders and small teams, the health of the human(s) running the business is often THE most important factor to growth.

Science proves that Adverse Childhood Experiences—a.k.a. childhood trauma, a.k.a. past traumatic stress, a.k.a. developmental trauma—change our brain, body, and behavior. As adults. Here’s a real-world example:

Let’s say the fictional “Siobhan” frequently experienced childhood emotional and verbal abuse. For instance:

  • Siobhan’s parents said belittling things to her whenever she said more than a few words.
  • When her parents asked her questions, they’d often interrupt her answering to tell her that her ideas were “stupid.”
  • When Siobhan spoke, her parents were often visibly bored, impatient, or exasperated, typically not even making eye contact.
  • During conversations, Siobhan’s parents often did other things, seeming only to half pay attention. If they were engaged, it was often only through teasing Siobhan for verbal stumbling as she rushed to justify her thoughts before further ridicule.

Today, maybe Siobhan no longer talks with her parents much. Or perhaps they’ve repaired their relationship. Either way, the past stressors that caused the original trauma are no longer in her life.

However, Siobhan now finds herself with a crippling fear of speaking in public. A fear she can’t explain.

Each time her business partner asks her to address the team at company parties, she starts sweating instantly. Her knees and voice start shaking. She feels nervous, her stomach drops, and her heart pounds (stress response).

She has this same reaction when talking with “authority figures,” like her mentor, her attorney, or her accountant.

Whenever people start questioning something Siobhan says, she still rushes to justify and explain herself, often stumbling over her words.

And when people yawn or seem bored, she turns on the charm or tells a joke to try to ensure they’re “entertained.”

We can see that because Siobhan had all these same sensory experiences as a child, she quickly becomes highly activated in even remotely similar situations today.

And she communicates this way with everyone, even her loving, supportive spouse who loves hearing what she has to say.

One important thing to note:

Siobhan has these same responses in situations where they don’t make logical sense, even to her. (Ex: Even when she knows she’s talking to a nonjudgmental person who loves what she has to say, she still fears judgment and ridicule are right around the corner.)

Remember, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event.

And our body is trained to respond to actual danger in the same ways it responds to the perception or possibility of danger.

So when Siobhan experiences present-day triggers with even remote similarities to past trauma, she feels terror and anxiety in the present—however unwarranted.

In Siobhan’s case, resolving that old trauma can boost her present-day ability to speak comfortably in public.

But again, knowing that isn’t enough. These responses are subconscious.

So unless we seek to heal from these old, stored experiences strategically and intentionally, trauma triggers keep getting reinforced.

Over time, our emotional responses to triggers keep ramping up in intensity.

And as they do, we encounter more and greater professional hurdles.

The Red Pill

There’s no getting around it. We MUST acknowledge the impact our past makes on our present, to live and work to our happiest, greatest potential.

When we commit to calming those triggers, we can enjoy less stress and anxiety symptoms.

We’ll have the presence of mind to weigh out options objectively, to tap into our intuition easily, and to make firm decisions more readily.

As we do, we’ll become much better equipped to direct the future of our companies, or our careers, toward bolder, faster, more consistent growth.