Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
March 11, 2022

Feeling the Need to Be Busy All the Time is a Trauma Response

People who have experienced trauma in some shape or form respond in different ways. Some shut down and withdraw from situations. Others do whatever it takes to avoid thinking about the traumatic experience. Feeling the need to be busy all the time is a trauma response. You’re deliberately avoiding your trauma by throwing yourself into overdrive.

PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) affects many people. If you have PTSD and can make it through your day despite any symptoms you feel, you might be a bit of a workaholic. You try to avoid the painful memories of your traumatic experience(s) by diving into project after project.

You might find relief in being busy, but the truth is that staying busy is a trauma response. Your symptoms of PTSD reflect someone who is capable of functioning in the world as long as you remain stimulated. It’s possible that you’re afraid of what will happen when you stop moving.

Signs of PTSD

If you suppress your emotions, get up each morning raring to go before you have a chance to check in with yourself, or ignore bad things that happen, you might have PTSD. It’s also possible you have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (c-PTSD). This is a result of adverse childhood experiences and ongoing neglect and abuse.

Our society doesn’t recognize all of the different types of trauma as equal. We know that war veterans most likely will have PTSD, but what about a person who was in a car accident? Or an Olympic athlete who gets injured and can’t compete? There’s Trauma with a big “T” and trauma with a “little t.” Trauma is trauma and affects everyone differently, but shares some common symptoms when it comes to PTSD and c-PTSD.

If you have PTSD, you probably wake from nightmares only to throw yourself into a long workday that ends in chores and anything else that keeps you moving. The busier you are, the less time you have to think about what happened to you.

Feeling the need to be busy all the time is a trauma response. 100%. When you go through something terrible, you don’t want to think about it again. You do everything you can to avoid reliving those moments from your traumatic experience(s). 

By filling your day with lists upon lists of things to do, you keep yourself from feeling distressing emotions. But you’re not doing yourself any favors because you’re not processing the trauma. Staying busy is a bandaid.

feeling the need to be busy all the time is a trauma response

Unprocessed Trauma

As I said before, everyone responds differently to trauma. It depends on what the traumatic experience was and how long the trauma went on. Unprocessed trauma can affect your physical and mental health. It can also affect your relationships.

Before you read this you may not have realized that staying busy is a trauma response. You probably thought you were coping. But now that I’ve pointed it out, I want to make sure you understand the severity of avoiding processing your trauma.

Unprocessed trauma is stored in the body. Studies have shown that unprocessed trauma can lead to health conditions such as stroke, heart attack, problems with your weight, diabetes, and cancer.

Beyond physical illness, unprocessed trauma can affect your mental health as well. Here are a few ways that unprocessed trauma affects your mental and psychological health:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Mood swings

If any of these sound familiar, you may be dealing with unprocessed trauma. And as you now know, staying busy is a trauma response. If you’re staying busy all the time, I encourage you to think about the motivation beyond just getting stuff done. And then I encourage you to seek help and process with a therapist the trauma you’ve experienced.

Staying Busy is a Trauma Response

We all want to forget the bad things that have happened to us. But because feeling the need to be busy all the time is a trauma response, staying busy isn’t helping you. It’s actually harming you.

Staying busy is how many people cope with trauma. The author of this article attended meetings mere hours after having a baby. She stays busy because she’s trying to avoid feeling her emotions related to her trauma. She asks herself “why am I like this?” only to realize the answer – the instability she felt growing up became problematic as she got older. She uses busyness as a coping mechanism for instability.

Busyness may not feel like a negative thing. But if you spend your whole life on the go, you’ll never stop and address the difficult emotions under the surface. You can get sick and your mental health will go to shit. If you’re already there, don’t worry, there’s hope.

Therapy is the first place to start with unprocessed trauma. Be honest with your therapist about your busyness. They’ll remind you that staying busy is a trauma response. They’ll also help you process your experience and provide coping skills and tools for you to use to maintain mental well-being.

Besides therapy, another way to manage your unprocessed trauma is to lean on your friends and family for support. Identify the people you trust and let them in. They want what’s best for you. If you find it difficult to talk about what happened, practice asking for what you need. It could be a hug, it could be a shoulder to cry on, or it could be quality time with a loved one.

It’s also important to prioritize self-care or else you’ll burn out. Some ways to practice self-care are through exercise, eating well, drinking enough water, relaxing with a cup of coffee or tea and listening to music, setting healthy boundaries in relationships, and practicing saying “no.” 

That last one is important for all of you out there who like to stay busy. If you can say “no” to extra work or extra plans or other things that keep you busy all the time, you’ll be left with facing your emotions, which is a good thing. It’s scary, but it’s good. 

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Realize That Staying Busy is a Trauma Response

I’m going to emphasize therapy again here because it’s so important to process your emotions with a trained professional. If you do manage to stop yourself from being busy all the time, you’ll need coping skills and ways to manage the strong emotions that might come up during downtime. It’s all part of the healing process.

Still not sure whether you’re managing unprocessed trauma by staying busy? Consider therapy – I can help you work through your symptoms and come up with coping strategies to manage your busyness.

During our work together, you’ll learn how to recognize that feeling the need to be busy all the time is a trauma response. We’ll come up with coping skills to deal with your symptoms and help you step confidently into the world knowing what you’re dealing with and how you can manage it.

I also offer a coaching program for perfectionists that is designed to give you support and guidance around feeling good enough in your professional and personal life – no matter where you live. If you want help overcoming the belief that you have to constantly achieve in order to be worthwhile, which can come up when we've struggled with trauma– and this belief is making you suffer – coaching could be for you.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started with therapy or coaching.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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