“… But other people have experienced worse than me”: How Trauma is Often Misunderstood.

“… But other people have experienced worse than me.”

As a therapist, this is a phrase I often hear from clients in session. It comes on the heels of someone sharing a very difficult experience. Clients will say this when they wonder if it is ok that their experienced is impacting them in difficult ways. The invalidation of one’s experience can take many forms but essentiall it asks the question, “ Is it ok that I’m not ok?”:

“My mom didn’t speak to me for a months when I was 14, but she never hit me.”

“My dad pushed me around but not enough to send me to the hospital.”

“I was in a car accident and was rear-ended, so I don’t usually drive unless I have to.”

Trauma

When I offer a reflection to my clients I often hear a rebuttal, stating that what they have been through  is not enough to merit the definition of a ‘traumatic experience’.

Trauma is often misunderstood. A traumatic experience is not a specific injustice or event but rather, it is the way that our body and mind responds to an event. Two people can be exposed to the same situation and have two different responses. One might experience the event as traumatic and the other not. Simply put – trauma is when our mind and body are unable to integrate the new information into our present understanding of the world (our schemas). This often  occurs after there has been  a real or perceived threat to safety – to oneself or primary relationships.

When we have not integrated a particularly difficult event we often play the experience over and over again in our mind. For example, early in my marriage my husband fainted at the movie theatre. It was particularly disturbing to me when I saw convulsions and interpreted it as him having a seizure. I yelled for help, the movie stopped and a paramedic was called. We went to the hospital where it was confirmed that he had simply fainted and that there was no neurological damage or indication that it would happen again. Regardless of the re-established safety by the emergency physician I later found my mind playing the scene of him fainting and me yelling for help over-and-over again. The scene played in my memory involuntarily like a scene from a movie that was constantly being refreshed. I would dream about it and have it running in my head for several days.

Circulating a memory, sometimes called ‘flashbacks’ or ‘ruminations’, is our body’s way of trying to replay the scene in a safe space. Because the scene is not actually happening again our body wants to repeat it, but from a distance, in order to integrate and make sense of our world again. Essentially, our mind is trying to re-establish safety. In this case, safety for my husband and for my ongoing relationship with him. 

What does this mean?

Even if you believe others have experienced worse things than you, this belief does not invalidate how this event has impacted you!

Your experience and your healing are important.

The beautiful thing about trauma is that with a trained therapist and supportive community the impacts of traumatic events can be re-integrated, making the symptoms much more manageable and often non-existent. While we will always remember the traumatic event, how our body responds to the event can change.

Things to consider:

Often times our body does a great job of re-integrating our difficult experiences all on its own. Sometimes we gets stuck. If you have experienced some of the symptoms listed below it might be worth connecting with a great therapist to help untangle and re-integrate how your body and mind made sense of that event or relationship.

Possible symptoms (but not limited to this list):

  • Memory loss of a particular time in your life
  • Re-occurring memories, like a movie scene
  • Avoidance of certain places, people or scenarios
  • Panic attacks
  • Ongoing depression
  • Hyperarousal around similar circumstances
  • Re-occurring dreams that disturb you
  • The desire to tell the same story over and over (this is especially present for children but often seen in adults as well)
  • Noticeable mood change in particular weather or season changes
  • Lack of desire or inability to keep close connections
  • Difficulty keeping employment
  • Making major life statements: “I will never put myself In this position again…”, “I will never be dependent on someone again…”, “If I don’t look out for me, no one will…”
  • Overreacting to your children’s experiences
  • Sudden loss of interest or obsession with food
  • Feeling confused, disoriented, difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to control emotional reactions (crying, anger outbursts, numbness)
  • Feelings of worthlessness
 

References:

     American Psychological Association. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Psychological_Association

     Siegel, D. J., & Tina Payne Bryson. (2012). The whole-brain child : 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s development, survive everyday parenting struggles, and help your family thrive. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

      The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2019). Retrieved December 21, 2019, from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network website: https://www.nctsn.org/

     What is Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR)? (2015, July 5). Retrieved January 10, 2020, from Applied Metapsychology International website: http://www.appliedmetapsychology.org/about-applied-metapsychology/what-is-tir/