In the past few decades, we’ve come a long way in understanding how human brains and bodies work. Unfortunately, this new knowledge doesn’t always trickle down into society. Our beliefs, cultures, and attitudes toward things often move at a much slower pace, causing us to carry on outdated thinking or misconceptions that were disproven long ago.
Take trauma, for example.
Trauma is a common occurrence, affecting almost everyone in society in one way or another. But because of myths and misconceptions about what trauma is and who it affects, we approach it with the wrong attitudes.
It’s something most of us would collectively like to avoid talking about altogether.
But we shouldn’t avoid trauma. Research has taught us that avoiding trauma can have emotional and even physiological consequences on our lives.
So, today we’d like to take some time to talk about trauma. Don’t worry; this won’t be too heavy. We won’t be asking you to dredge up any painful memories. We’re simply going to talk about what trauma really is, some persistent myths that need clearing up, and how you can find help in dealing with it.
So, what exactly is trauma?
Trauma comes from the Greek word for a wound. It could be something small or large, but it’s anything that has wounded us somehow.
This is different from how many think about trauma. Many wrongly associate trauma with PTSD. These two issues are related but are actually very different from each other. Trauma is a cause, and PTSD is a resulting symptom. PTSD is a mental health disorder that has resulted from a traumatic event. But many traumatic events never cause PTSD.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.”
Part of this definition is what makes trauma so difficult to discuss. It’s very common for two people to experience close to the same traumatic experience but to be impacted differently. What events impact one person’s behavior might not be the same for another.
What kinds of events or experiences cause trauma?
Because trauma is a highly personal experience, it’s hard to define traumatic experiences for every person. But some categories of experiences tend to frequently result in trauma.
For example, trauma typically occurs if you’ve been in situations where you felt:
Life experiences that tend to lead to trauma are:
- Sudden disturbing events like a car crash or assault
- Death or separation from a loved one
- Seeing or experiencing violence in your community, like war or acts of terrorism
- Being harmed or witnessing harm to another
- Experiencing childhood neglect
- Living in poverty
- Staying in homes where someone is suffering from mental health or substance abuse disorders
- Dealing with racism, oppression, or discrimination
Why do we need to deal with trauma?
Many people believe that if you keep your head down and don’t talk about the bad things that happened to you, they’ll simply go away. Unfortunately, research has shown us that this isn’t the case.
In fact, trauma doesn’t just affect our emotional well-being. It can literally change our physiology.
A study found that the structures of children’s brains were changed when exposed to traumatic experiences. They found that these children were more likely to have chronic health conditions and engage in risky behavior throughout their lives.
When we don’t deal with trauma, it can create feelings of helplessness, cause us to lose self-awareness, and make it harder for us to correctly process daily situations. It affects every area of our lives, like our physical, mental, behavioral, and social well-being.
So, we must process our trauma with the help of a professional individual counselor or couples therapist. But unfortunately, many don’t seek the support they need because of misconceptions stemming from the various myths floating around about trauma.
Let’s dispel some of the myths circulating about trauma
Trauma and professional counseling are still somewhat stigmatized in our society (but progress is being made). People’s outdated thinking keeps them from seeking the care they need. So, it’s worth clearing up some common myths people have about trauma.
Myth 1: Only the weak are impacted by trauma
For some reason, showing emotion is often associated with weakness in our society. So, anyone who expresses pain or hurt is viewed as “weak .” This problem is compounded by the previously mentioned fact that we all experience things differently. One person goes through something and thinks it didn’t affect them, which lowers their empathy towards others who have gone through the same thing but show signs of being affected. We all have our own personal histories resulting in different thresholds and tolerances for experiences. Just because someone else went through something without experiencing trauma doesn’t mean another person is weak when they do. Trauma is universal and impacts everyone. Some just don’t want to admit it.
Myth 2: Only life-threatening events cause trauma
Experiences that we associate with “everyday” life can be just as traumatic as life-threatening experiences. For example, divorce occurs in half of all marriages in the USA. However, just because it’s common and not life-threatening doesn’t mean it’s any less traumatic than a car crash. Some might chalk up a near-death experience from a car crash as an accident that happened and not be radically affected by it. But that same person might view the “common” occurrence of divorce as a severe event that uprooted almost every part of their life. Your life doesn’t have to be on the line for your trauma to be real or valid.
Myth 3: You’ll never get over your trauma, so why bother trying
Modern individual and couples counseling techniques have shown significant progress in helping people work through even the most difficult traumatic experiences. Yes, some traumas are so severe they permanently change our lives or will always be with us in some way. But that doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to experience less in life or that you can’t have a positive change in what happened. Life will give us many opportunities to learn, grow, reprogram, and even flourish.
Myth 4: Trauma heals in a predictable way
Many believe that healing from trauma is a linear process – that there’s a beginning, middle, and end. But trauma treatment takes its own paths depending on the person, the severity of the event, etc. Different traumas can heal along entirely different timelines, even for the same person. Dealing with the trauma in our lives is a continuous process and requires us to pay particular attention to our body’s clues.
Myth 5: You/the strong can handle trauma on your/their own
This myth stems from the earlier one: “trauma only affects the weak.” We know that trauma is not a sign of weakness, so we also know that our strength is not enough to deal with trauma in our lives. Humans are made for relationships, and we need other people around us to help us heal. Trauma is also a tricky wound to heal because of the unique way it impacts us. So, we need qualified assistance, like we would get from a trained counselor.
Myth 6: Just talking about or reliving trauma will help you get past it
Yes, the professional counselor is saying that simply talking about trauma is not an effective treatment. Dredging up trauma in an uncontrolled environment can actually cause unnecessary harm. This is because our traumas aren’t stored like regular memories, which are kept safely in long-term memory storage. In long-term memory, there’s a distinction in our brains between what happened and the present. But traumas get stored with recent memories. Every time you relive a traumatic event, your body and brain recall and process the event as if it’s happening again in the present. So, just talking about your trauma in an uncontrolled environment can do more harm than good. That’s why seeking a professional counselor, or trained therapist is vital.
You can break free from trauma
When we don’t deal with it correctly, trauma can leave us stuck in life and unable to move forward. We can also end up isolated from loved ones, unable to enjoy the fullness of personal connections.
Trauma affects us all, so we shouldn’t feel stigmatized for feeling its effects.
We regularly seek outside help for all types of problems. So why don’t we feel the same way about our mental health?
If you feel like past traumas are holding you back in life, please know you don’t have to suffer alone. There are trained counselors available to guide you to freedom from your past traumas. The important thing is to seek professional guidance, whether from me or any other trained therapist. If you would like to talk, I will be happy to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call.