Is THAT Trauma?
Posted: March 15, 2018
The word "trauma" is a word we use and often misunderstand. Oh, we understand some trauma to be trauma accurately, like being victimized or witnessing atrocities. But we often overlook some things that register in our nervous system as trauma. Let me back up for a minute and give you a couple definitions. Good old Merriam-Webster defines it "a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury," as well as "an emotional upset." Clear? Probably not so much, but kinda maybe, right? When we experience something and have an overwhelm of emotion, that could be trauma. Some key emotions that show up in this overwhelm are fear and/or shame and/or powerlessness. There are a few others that sometimes show up and often it is a combination so we may feel confused or disoriented. In my experience as a therapist, I see a lot of resistance to labeling an experience as trauma, sometimes even when it would be objectively seen as trauma by an average bystander. There is something about personally accepting the experience as a trauma that is uncomfortable. Still, I want to broaden that definition of trauma to beyond the "obviously trauma" experiences. These events change the way we see the world...change they way we believe we ARE in the world. Some experiences we believe to be minor, such as a teacher making a statement like, "This paper is unacceptable," or maybe wetting your pants in Kindergarten and some kids pointing at you. These experience COULD cause us to well up with emotion and change what we believe about ourselves. These "smaller" traumas are often working in the background with a belief that is running the show. An example might be, "I'm not good enough." So we are working so hard to prove that we are good enough that we experience anxiety symptoms. The solution is to find these emotionally charged memories and challenge the beliefs that were formed or reinforced during that memory. I would like to take a moment to clarify that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a clinical diagnosis based on a response to traumatic experiences. Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. As I am talking about trauma, especially these so-called minor traumas, please do not assume that you have PTSD or don't have PTSD. If you have symptoms of intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares, as well as other distressing or uncomfortable symptoms related to your experience(s), please look for a qualified professional to help you. AND, if you want some help challenging these beliefs formed in the emotional events in your life, you may also want to seek out a therapist to help you. For now, let's just start by acknowledging our experiences as potential traumas which we have responded to. Be willing to validate our life experience as impactful as it was. Know that these beliefs that were formed are most likely faulty or distorted.