If You’re Feeling Unproductive, It Might Be Because of “Trauma Drive” — Here’s Why That’s Actually a Good Thing

published Mar 14, 2023
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Have you ever felt surprised by (or even scared of) a sudden lack of motivation? Maybe you typically aim to get a lot done each day — getting your kids to school, sending emails, washing dishes — but suddenly, you can’t make yourself do it. You feel exhausted, physically and emotionally, and you worry you’ll never complete your to-do list. 

If your need for productivity came from a need to numb or distract yourself, for instance, you may be experiencing “trauma drive,” or an urge to stay busy to cope. Then, when that urge lessens, your body is in a stage of “restful healing.” A trauma counselor on TikTok, Courtney, talks about this concept regularly. While that lack of motivation can be stressful, try not to fight it: It usually means your body feels safe enough to truly relax and heal. 

So where exactly does trauma drive come from? “Any experience that invokes trauma can cause trauma drive to develop,” says Lora “Leanne” Dudley, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Lynchburg, Virginia who has spent more than 15 years working with trauma survivors. “Trauma drive is your body’s way of protecting itself from re-experiencing experiences that are similar to your trauma.” This might look like busying yourself with chores, work, taking care of your kids, or keeping your apartment clean — anything that keeps your mind off your pain.

While that can feel great at first — after all, checking items off a to-do list boosts dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter — it’s not sustainable (or helpful to your long-term well-being). “The motivation for trauma drive comes from a place of fear where that trauma lives within us,” Dudley says. Bring in self-compassion, not judgment, as you move into the restful healing stage.

Speaking of, “restful healing” is the period afterward the drive wears off in which you pretty much don’t want to do anything. Your body wants to relax, and it finally feels safe and strong enough to do so. This stage is necessary for your body, too. “The need to slow down is due to the rationale that the body cannot sustain long periods of being hyper-focused and motivated,” Dudley explains.

Some signs you may be approaching the restful healing stage, she adds, are feeling unmotivated or emotionally exhausted, having less desire to “power through,” and experiencing less tension in your body. “This is your body’s way of providing you with indicators that rest is needed both physically and mentally so you can reset,” Dudley says. While it may feel stressful or unfamiliar, she encourages you to stop and breathe. “Is your apartment clean? Is the laundry folded? Maybe no, and that is okay. Giving yourself permission to let that be okay is part of healing.”

This part may be easier said than done, especially if you have a long to-do list. But rest assured, your body and mind need and deserve it. “Restful healing is a time when not only physically you can take a breath and moment, but you can also begin to look at your trauma history and begin to work on your self-healing journey,” Dudley says. And what a beautiful thing it is for your brain to feel safe enough to relax and heal, and to communicate that to your body.

Really leaning into doing “nothing” can be most productive here, as counterintuitive as that may sound. Dudley encourages staying present. “Do not think about the grocery list you need to make or how you are going to climb the corporate ladder — just simply be,” she says. “This can take time and practice because it is hard to disengage and just be present. It can feel scary, but it is needed.”

Some ways to lean into resting and recharging are watching a funny movie on the couch, journaling, reading the self-help book your therapist suggested, sitting outside, or taking a nap.

Remember, you’ll always have something you “should” be doing — and it’ll all get done. In fact, taking a “cleaning vacation” can help you be more productive (not to mention happier and healthier) in the long run. “Taking time for oneself is something that is not highlighted, but should be, because not only does the body physically need rest, but the mind also needs to rest to not think and be so hyper-focused,” Dudley says. She urges you to give yourself grace.

There is zero shame around taking breaks and taking care of yourself — even when that means your apartment is a mess.