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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

Trauma and PTSD

Almost every person I’ve ever treated for PTSD has compared their experience to someone else’s in a way that played down their own experience. “It’s silly…” or “It’s not that big a deal, really, but…” or “It’s not that much compared to what other people have been through.”

One of the reasons this is significant is because traumatic experiences are subjective, not objective. Despite the fact that the DSM-IV is very specific about the criteria, there is no real objective threshold for what is “traumatic”. The objective difficulty of a situation is less important in evaluating trauma than the subjective experience of the person in the situation. Put another way, getting attacked by a dog may be traumatic for one person when a car accident is not. Getting into a car accident may be traumatic for another person while getting shot at in combat is not.

Even more confusingly, getting into a certain car accident may not be traumatic, while getting into a different car accident may be.

I tend to describe events as “potentially traumatic” because going through a scary thing doesn’t make it traumatic–the way the memory of that event affects our brain and body does. We find out that something is traumatic when we have a “traumatic reaction” to going through it.

This doesn’t have anything to do with mental strength or fortitude, either. Some of the toughest, most disciplined people I know have developed PTSD after a random event that leaves them scratching their heads as to why. They’d been through objectively worse situations–but THIS situation hits them wrong and now they’re having difficulties? Why?

I sometimes use the metaphor of a bad back. You can be a strong, fit person who lifts heavy weights all the time, and still throw your back out standing up from a comfy chair. The fact that it happened when standing up doesn’t invalidate the pain and discomfort, doesn’t make you any less worthy of sympathy or support, and doesn’t invalidate your strength or represent a moral failing. You just threw your back out.

You are a mentally strong, self-aware person who deals with stress all the time, and THIS event hit differently. The fact that you weren’t at war or in a near-fatal accident doesn’t invalidate the mental pain and discomfort, doesn’t make you less worthy of sympathy or support, and doesn’t invalidate your strength or represent a moral failing. You have suffered a trauma.

I encourage people who are dealing with trauma to keep those things in mind. Your traumatic experience is valid, and doesn’t need to be compared to other experiences–yours or other people’s. It was tough for you, it impacted you, and we can honor that difficulty and experience without minimizing it.

Second, the fact that you had a traumatic reaction to the event doesn’t mean that you were weak, or unprepared, or have some other moral or emotional failing. It just means that the event, on that day, in the way that it happened, impacted you. Maybe you can figure out why, but maybe you can’t. Maybe you just have to deal with the impact it has on you–and judging yourself for having the reaction isn’t fair and only gets in your way.

We offer compassion and patience to others all the time. Make sure you offer it to yourself as well.


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