This post is part of a series on Featured Topics, topics that are commonly asked about and addressed in therapy. Click here for previous posts.
“Trauma”. It’s such a heavy word. It’s not uncommon for people to hear that word and totally reject the idea that they’ve undergone anything quite that serious — after all, they think, I’m still here, it could have been worse. This short post will talk about the definition of “trauma”, the stigma that unfortunately surrounds it, warning signs for when to seek professional help, and why on earth this concept matters to YOU.
“But other people had it worse.”
I hear this quite frequently. People assume that because what they went through wasn’t the worst thing compared to someone else’s experiences, it doesn’t qualify as “trauma” or as “bad enough” to worry much about. This is one of the most damaging misconceptions about trauma and disturbing life experiences. The general, informal definition of “trauma” in the mental health world is a disturbing life event that has significantly impacted your functioning in at least one broad life area (e.g., social, academic, emotional, physical, etc.). There’s a wide range of experiences when it comes to trauma. Some people experience “big-T trauma”, like being a victim of violence or threatened death, experiencing childhood abuse, or enduring a natural disaster. Other people experience “little-t trauma”, like a bad heartbreak, a messy divorce, a friendship dissolving, or a painful memory from the past that keeps coming up. Whatever your experience, yours matters. You are the only person who has lived your life and knows what it’s like to experience what you’ve gone through. The amount of pain that you have gone through is not in any way comparable to the amount of pain someone else has experienced; pain is pain, and it’s not silly, pointless, selfish, or stupid to seek relief and resolution for your pain, however large or small.
“Oh no, we don’t talk about that.”
How many times were you told not to cry as a kid? As an adult? How often do you stop yourself from bringing something up to a friend because you don’t want to be a Debbie Downer? Ever have a painful experience that you really want to talk about, but because it’s 1) been “long enough” or 2) been talked about several times already, you just decide to keep it to yourself? Our current society likes to see happiness, not pain, not sadness, not tragedy. But that’s not real life. Humans are messy, and emotions - all emotions - are an integral part to experiencing life to the fullest. To shut down some of them is a powerful way of denying big chunks of the human experience. Sometimes the only way out is through; it’s like when your car is going up a steep hill, and you have to keep giving the engine more gas to get up and over the hill to the other side. Giving yourself the permission to move through the pain enables you to get to the other side, and everyone works at their own pace.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
You’ve tried a lot of different ways to cope with life events. Some of them have been successful and adaptive and positive. Others, maybe a little less so. People cope however they know how - everything from avoidance and disconnection to denial, to food, sex, drugs, and alcohol, to depression, anxiety, and resignation to a “new normal”. Our response to trauma and disturbing events is the efforts of our brain and body to handle it in a way that doesn’t completely overwhelm us; people really do the best they can. If your methods of coping have left you feeling stuck, overwhelmed, scared, or hopeless, it may be time to add new tools to your toolbox to help you find other ways to cope that may help you better. Therapy can help not only cope, but actually to RESOLVE some of these things that caused so much pain in the first place! It’s like removing the weeds by the root instead of just mowing the grass.
“Cool article, but I’ve had a pretty easy life.”
If you’re among the lucky few that don’t deal with either big- or small-t traumas, you definitely know someone who has. Even if you yourself don’t need further help in this area, don’t underestimate the incredible power of EMPATHY. Your willingness to allow another person to open up to you, and you meeting them with compassion, understanding, and no judgment, does so much to alleviate the stigma and shame that can come with surviving trauma and abuse.
So now what? Now you have a choice to make. You can choose to fight. To make your life better, a little easier. You can choose to do something differently, to invest in yourself, to put in the work necessary to heal, to grow. Because surviving is hard enough work - why not thrive instead? Call me for a free consultation; I want to help you take that next step.
Megan Bonynge is a trauma therapist intern in Orange County working under supervision. She specializes in EMDR therapy, PTSD, dissociation, and eating disorders. She is trained in early EMDR intervention for very recent traumas. Megan also teaches part time at Cal State Fullerton.