What Counts as "Real" Trauma?
Have you ever expressed your suffering to someone who responds: "That's nothing! Listen to my suffering..." Yes, we've all met that insufferable jackass.
But the term "trauma" has this halo around it. We don't want to call our experiences "trauma," because ... well, what about the most heinous torture victims? What about someone who has it worse? By calling my experience "trauma," doesn't that minimize their traumatic experience?
No. Here's why.
When you hear the word “Trauma,” the first thing that comes to your mind may be very different than someone else. Some people associate trauma with “shell shock” and Vietnam vets. Some people associate the term with childhood abuse. Social workers will use the term to explain what children raised in violent homes have experienced.
Who’s right? Which experience is really trauma, and which is just a knockoff? Which of the following situations is truly traumatic?
An IED explodes under a caravan of enlisted soldiers. Several men die, others survive with chronic pain, having witnessed their brothers maimed and dying.
A 9-year-old boy lays still in bed while his father molests him.
A 14-year-old girl gets in a fight with her mother, and says: “I hope you die.” Her mother dies unexpectedly that night of an overdose.
A woman is punched, kicked, and called profane names several times per week by her husband. She stays out of fear for her children. This lasts for years. She finally leaves him. Her church tells her to return to him. She does not. So, they privately remove her from the member roll.
Which of these people are traumatized, and which is “derivative”? The answer is: all these experiences potentially traumatic, depending on the symptoms they produce.
What unifies very different traumatic experiences is what happens to a survivor’s mind in each of these experiences. The symptoms produced ultimately unify these experiences. Intrusive dreams, dysregulated emotions, avoidance behavior which can become compulsive addiction—the symptoms from all of these look oddly similar (we unpack this issue a bit in the article "Unpacking a PTSD Diagnosis," (click here to read). So, how can we relate them all? How can we put them on the same spectrum?
Unifying Traumatic Experiences
The purpose of this article is merely to explain how such different experiences as child sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, grief, and combat can all be called by the same word: “Traumatic.”
None of these categories necessarily correspond to the severity of the trauma. There are variables which could soften the psychological effects of even the worst evils
Bonus Tip: For a deep-dive the "logic" of trauma, read the article: “Why Trauma Happens”
There are also experiences which many would consider common, and perhaps even removed from the situation, which end up being traumatizing for unexpected people to an unanticipated degree. For example, a soldier might handle severe injury from combat trauma extremely well, while another person may suffer post-traumatic stress for years because of the unexpected death of a parent—or the reverse.
There are two factors which determine the nature of a trauma. The first is proximity—that is, how close you are to the trauma. Getting shot and seeing someone get shot are two different experiences, both potentially traumatic. But they are different in proximity. The second is complexity—that is, whether the trauma roots itself deep in the psyche in a meaningful way, or if it is short-lived.
Proximity can be configured in terms of direct and indirect experiences of trauma. Direct traumas are those in which the traumatized were at the epicenter of the evil, the pain, or the suffering. It happened to them, not to someone else.
Indirect traumas are those in which the traumatized must witness someone else experience pain or suffering, often without being able to help.
There are three factors which can determine whether a trauma is complex or acute. The first factor is intimacy—how relationally close the survivors was with other actors in the trauma. Or, we could put it this way: The greater sense that the trauma was a betrayal, and the perpetrator was considered trustworthy, the more complex the trauma.
The second factor is developmental stage—how old was the survivor when the trauma occurred? Generally speaking—the younger, the more complex the trauma. The third factor is duration—did it occur for a longer time? If so, that duration of suffering could convince you that strategies for escaping abuse are ineffective—that life is unavoidably evil.
Pain inflicted by someone close can shatter our conception of the world. It would disrupt our criteria for who is trustworthy, whether good things can last, and whether human beings can be inherently good. Intimate betrayal can crack your ability to be hopeful, to see the best in people, and even to see the best in yourself. You may viciously oscillate between hating everyone and hating your own self.
Pain inflicted upon you when you are young can have a similar effect. When you are forming your conception of the world, your experiences form your “research” about how the world works. The way people relate to you when you are young forms a baseline by which you operate for the rest of your life. When you are hurt and abused in ways you can’t comprehend as a child, you are compelled both to find ways of avoiding that unprocessed pain, and believe yourself deserving of that pain, to some degree. You will both violently defend and destroy yourself simultaneously.
When pain is inflicted for a long duration of time, victims can develop “learned helplessness,” meaning that when they are in situations which are bad for them, they no longer try to escape, because they see the attempt as futile. Their “warning alarm” for dangerous experiences is dulled and rusted—it doesn’t go off when it should, and often goes off when it shouldn’t. The typical example of this is the child who was chronically abused by his father, who is romantically interested in women who treat him like dirt, and is bored by good women.
Traumas which are acute are often punctiliar in nature. That is, they happen all at once, and then end—leaving devastation in its wake. These are odd moments that occur quickly, which change everything. Survivors often wonder: “When could something like this happen again?” Panic attacks and addictive compulsions are common after these experiences. Survivors use physical tactics, trying to find an average of adrenaline and dopamine that averages out to something like “normal.”
This is intended to be a brief configuration of the unity of various traumas, which are often considered disparate, and perhaps even derivative of one another. There is no such thing as real trauma and fake trauma when it comes to a trauma’s proximity or complexity. You can't measure one trauma by another trauma. Direct trauma isn't "more real" than indirect trauma.
There's no legitimate "Well, at least..." when it comes to trauma. To compare wounds is to trivialize profound pain by an arbitrary metric—there is no measurement by comparison. We can only relate traumas to one another in order to determine their kinds, not their quantities. There is no sense of betrayal, age of development, or duration of pain that makes trauma more credible than other traumas.
We could add a third dimension to this chart—a “z axis” which turns the chart into three dimensions. If the “x axis” here is Complex—Acute, and the “y axis” is Indirect—Direct, then the “z axis” would be non-traumatic—traumatic, which is determined by the intersection of the victim’s resilience with the severity of the event. Again, this concept is discussed more in the article “Why Trauma Happens” (click here to read).