Trauma is a heavy word. There are so many definitions, so many assumptions, so many feelings and so many associations. In reality, it can mean very different things to different people. When it comes down to it, trauma is a situation that alters your mind or body in a negative way. It makes you feel helpless or threatened or overwhelmed in a way that you can’t process. Since no two people are the same, it makes sense that we see and experience trauma differently. Something not so commonly known is that trauma is not just the event that messed you up. It’s also the lingering effects that the event has caused in you.
It can show up so differently from one person to the next.
I’ve found that trauma is something that can make you feel like the floor has been ripped out from under you. Where you’re no longer in control of your own mind. Suddenly everything you knew is gone and all that is left is confusion and pain. Nothing feels safe- not even your own body- and you find yourself wondering if you will ever be okay again. That has been my experience anyway. However, I’ve discussed it in anonymous support groups with women who’ve gone through similar traumas as me and while some of the symptoms overlapped, our experiences were not the same.
Not everyone has a full mental breakdown the way that I did; some people were able to suffer in silence and keep it hidden with ease. Some people were relatively okay except for a few triggering occasions, while others were affected in every part of their beings at all times. There were a lot of people who needed to talk with the people around them about what was going on because if they didn’t, they felt like they’d explode. Others didn’t say a word because of the (undeserved) shame that they associated with their trauma.
People who’ve never experienced trauma might think it is something else altogether.
I know when I was younger, I thought you could only get PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder) if you were a soldier who’d seen active duty. It turns out, that’s a popular misconception. I had no idea that you could be traumatized by something that could happen in everyday life. Or the multitude of situations that could actually cause it. That’s part of why trauma is one of the most misunderstood conditions. Not only does it show up so differently, but it’s also sort of taboo to speak about.
Many people see being traumatized as weak, especially if someone else would be less affected by the same situation. There are also a lot of people who fall into the blame-the-victim mentality, even when they themselves are the victim. I used to be one of those people, constantly reliving the situation in mind again and again trying to figure out what I should have done differently. Because of those feelings of being weak or at fault, a lot of us don’t openly talk about our trauma or about the way it has affected us. We try to hide it so that we can appear stronger instead. This often leads to feeling alone, as no one around us has talked about it either.
No one wants to be traumatized.
Another reason trauma isn’t often talked about is that a lot of people think that if they just ignore the pain and the fear, it might go away. Pretend it isn’t there. Fake it till you make it. Kill it with positive thoughts. If only it were that easy! But unfortunately, pretending to be okay will not make you okay. You can only lie to yourself for so long before it starts to different areas of your life. It affects how you feel about yourself and about other people. Your physical and mental health, your relationships, your job… Your trauma starts showing up everywhere.
Trauma can actually alter your brain chemistry.
One of the reasons that your trauma affects you so strongly is that it literally changes you. There have been studies that show that your brain is different after you experience a severe trauma, especially the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus. This can alter the way that you think, feel and act, whether you want it to or not. Anxiety, depression, hyper vigilance and fear are some of the side effects.
While your brain tries to protect you from possibly getting hurt again, it actually starts keeping you trapped in your pain and prevents you from living a full life. Constant stress, rumination and not allowing yourself to let your guard down will keep you in constant fight or flight mode. Instead of being present, you are trapped reliving your trauma again and again in your mind. And while the actual events might not be happening again in reality, all of the feelings associated with it are. The danger feels very real.
What’s qualifies as trauma-causing can vary from person to person.
Two people can go through the exact same situation and one walk away fine while the other is traumatized. It’s very important to note that neither person is wrong. Everyone’s mind works differently, and different life experiences can change how something affects you. Your personality, age, history, expectations and support system can also play a role in whether or not you end up with PTSD.
Some events are more obvious when it comes to what most people associate with trauma. Not just war, but things like being violently attacked, held at gun point, being sexually assaulted, domestic violence, being involved in a major accident.
Other issues are less expected by most to have lasting or extreme effects. Things that are usually just categorized as overwhelming, or lean more towards mental pain that physical: abandonment, betrayal, neglect, grief. Despite the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t think these types of situations would be considered trauma, they can have devastating effects on an individual and lead to life altering issues. It’s important to recognize that just because one person might not be traumatized by one of these situations does not mean that no one else should be. Again, things affect people differently. Refusing to validate someone’s feelings can have detrimental effects and prevent healing. Everyone’s feelings are valid.
PTSD is an extreme reaction to trauma.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, but those who do are greatly affected. It can become a new voice in their head, traumatizing them again and again with their own thoughts. A lot of the time, someone who develops PTSD loses their sense of self and ends up in a constant battle with their own mind. They might feel trapped and alone, begging for just one day without the bad thoughts or flashbacks. Feelings of inadequacy, constant fear, and a longing for normalcy are common.
It’s like no matter what you do, you can’t shake the feeling that something else is going to happen. You constantly worry or replay the events in your mind. You pull away from everyone because you’re afraid of what they’d think of you if they knew what was in your head. Or you pull away because you think they might hurt you too. Feeling damaged and less than, you might even convince yourself that you’re crazy. Panic attacks, hyperventilating, nightmares, outbursts… You lose all control. Many people aren’t able to eat or sleep or find interest in any of their former hobbies. They might even have trouble getting out of bed at all. Suicidal thoughts, addictions to drugs or alcohol, and chronic depression are also very common.
Traumatic memories aren’t like regular memories.
Regular memories eventually start to fade. Maybe you hold onto certain details or feelings you associate with them, but the memory itself gets fuzzy or even forgotten. That’s not how traumatic memories work. With trauma, especially in regards to PTSD, you can remember every single bit of the event in graphic detail. What you were doing before, what you saw, what you smelled, what you felt. The memory doesn’t fade or decay because you relive it over and over again in your head. Something might have happened years ago, but it feels like it was yesterday because of how detailed your ruminations are. This makes it harder to recover and healing can feel impossible.
Only you can decide what’s traumatic for you.
It doesn’t matter if someone else has gone through the same situation and walked away fine. If it affected you, then it affected you. In the same sense, you do not get to decide what was traumatic for someone else. You do not know how an event made them feel or what effects it had on their mind. Often, people tend to judge each other based on their own feelings and reactions. With trauma, it’s very important that we don’t do this, as it can make it harder to heal if someone doesn’t feel validated.
It’s also important to remember that just because someone else might have it worse, that doesn’t mean that we go through is inconsequential. Again, this comes back to the fact that everyone is affected by things differently. It doesn’t matter how long ago your trauma occurred, how many other people have been through it or how they reacted. And it doesn’t matter if worse things are happening to others. What you went through is real and valid and it matters. It’s important to recognize that and give yourself both the grace and space to heal.
I’m going to wrap this up now, because I don’t want this to be too overwhelming.
But I’ll be back next week with more on trauma, and you can find some of the previous articles I’ve written about it here:
- Trauma is not your fault but healing is your responsibility
- Trauma Secrets: Healing Without The Audience
- Healing isn’t linear
- Triggers: They don’t have to own us anymore.
- You have to want to heal in order to heal