As a therapist, it’s not all that often that someone contacts me with the explicit goal of healing past trauma. It’s not that I never receive this phone call. But you’d think I’d receive far more requests for trauma therapy than I do.
There are two reasons why I say this:
For one thing, I specialize in trauma therapy and advertise that I offer this form of treatment. Still, I receive far more phone calls from people looking for help with overcoming anxiety, dealing with depression, or building self-esteem, for example.
There’s another peculiar thing I started noticing about trauma-related inquiries a while back, too. Despite the relatively small number of people who contact me for help with resolving trauma, many or perhaps even most of my clients end up showing interest in and benefiting from trauma therapy.
All of this used to strike me as strange. That is, until I realized that many of us are working with a far too narrow definition of trauma.
Why our definition of trauma is often limited
For the sake of demonstration, I want you to try something. I want you to take 30 seconds or so to reflect on the following question:
What do I think of when I hear the word trauma?
What did you come up with?
Perhaps you imagined a bad car wreck or a violent assault.
Maybe you thought of someone being exposed to the atrocities of war.
Or, if you’re the more medically minded type, you may have thought about traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
Let me clear here: If these or other similar events are what you came up with, you’re absolutely right. Each of these experiences and countless others like them can and often do result in trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The problem with our definition of trauma is not usually a problem with what we include; it’s with what we leave out.
As a therapist, I’ve found that most people’s trauma definition is limited to trauma involving isolated, one-time events. And I’m certain this is why many of my clients are confused when I share with them for the first time that past trauma may be contributing to their current distress.
Trauma that results from one-time, stand-alone events is sometimes called shock trauma. It’s a well-known form of trauma that’s no less real or serious than any other form of trauma. But, in many cases, it’s the only type of trauma that we deem to “count” as trauma. Without a broader, more expansive definition of trauma, we can’t help but overlook those forms of trauma that involve more complex and prolonged experiences.
The trauma no one ever talks about
Alongside shock trauma exists a form of trauma that often unfolds over years or even decades. Strain trauma, as it’s been called, tends to result from repetitive interpersonal patterns that occur in one’s family. These are not one-time occurrences. In families, problematic relational patterns are often reenacted thousands of times in daily family life.
Consider, for example, the young girl whose father has difficulty responding positively to her success. This may be due to the father’s own depression, narcissistic envy, or competitiveness. But, unfortunately, the young girl has no way of knowing this. All she knows is that, whenever she seeks her father’s approval for an accomplishment, the approval never comes. Instead, her dad may simply ignore her or change the topic. He may compare his daughter’s achievement with a sibling’s greater accomplishment. Perhaps he turns away from his daughter, looking sad or hurt. He may even attempt to claim the success for himself.
Chances are, the girl’s father employs versions of each of these negative responses. But the message the young girl continually receives from her parent is virtually always the same: “You’re not good enough,” “You’re such a disappointment” and “You don’t matter.”
As an adult, this young girl is likely to struggle when it comes to her continued success and happiness. Self-criticism and low self-confidence will almost certainly interfere in her life. She may feel conflicted about completing a college degree. She may not allow herself to take pleasure in career promotions she earns. And she’s likely to question whether she deserves happiness in her marriage or with close friends.
Why we need to expand our definition of trauma
Arriving at a broader definition of trauma is not only important for mental health professionals. If you’re someone who lives with the effects of trauma, the inability to name your experience as trauma can often mean not getting the help you need. After all, it’s hard to know where to turn for help when you don’t even know what you’re experiencing. Worse still, when you lack an explanation for why you feel the way you do, you’re likely to end up engaging in harsh self-criticism.
Consider the young girl described above for a moment. How would not knowing that adverse relational patterns, like the one she lived through as a child, affect her later in life? Without a way to make sense of the symptoms she experiences, she’d probably develop the self-defeating belief that she’s “crazy” or “ridiculous.” Chances are, she’d end up telling herself she’s just “too dramatic.” And perhaps she’d even feel ashamed for always “overreacting” in certain situations.
This young girl’s story is not at all uncommon. In fact, I hear different versions of it from my clients all the time. But trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Being able to name your experience as trauma empowers you to take steps toward getting help.
Trauma therapy can help you build a vocabulary to make meaning of the trauma you’ve endured. It can help you learn to mindfully observe—without judgment—the ways in which early-life trauma continues to impact your life today. And most importantly, therapy for trauma can help you learn to regulate difficult emotions and negative self-beliefs, helping you to feel more confident and alive.
Interested in learning more about how trauma therapy can help you live your best life? Read more about my approach to helping people overcome past trauma on my trauma therapy page.