There are criteria for receiving a formal diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which define trauma in specific ways. These can easily be found, but what I want to focus on here in this blog is some of the common misconceptions of what trauma is and how it is experienced.
So often I meet people who have experienced a multitude of traumatic events, but none of which in their minds constitute a “significant enough trauma” to justify their struggle. This always feels to me like putting the cart before the horse. If you are struggling to cope with the aftermath of an event, or multiple events, then that tells you that something about those experiences were significant enough to have had an adverse effect on you. And that’s important.
In my work as a Clinical Psychologist I work with the experience someone has of an event and the difficulty it is presenting in their lives. Perhaps they are experiencing flashbacks or repetitive thoughts, they are irritable and struggling to function in the way they were. If they feel numb or incapable of managing their emotions it is indicative that they need support to process the trauma. These things sometimes are, but don’t need to be, from the battlefield or from a life threatening one-off event like a car accident. Sometimes relationships are traumatic, experiencing emotional abuse or the birth of a child in which you feel powerless or out of control. The diversity of events that can lead to trauma are huge.
Generally what I find in my work is that if the event didn’t have, at the time, the right resources or people available to help you process what happened… If, for example, you didn’t have anywhere to talk it through or cry or take time to really think about it, then this is more likely to develop into trauma that becomes problematic at a later point. There are many reasons we might not have been able to attend to a situation at the time. Maybe we didn’t have the resources, maybe we’ve been taught not to cry or talk about things, maybe there were other pressures that needed dealing with… whatever the reason it can mean that the trauma doesn’t have the space it needs. It can emerge at a later date, even years later, in different ways.
There are different therapies available for working through trauma, talking therapies, body work and specialist therapies like Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR). What is important is to find someone you feel really safe with and who is trained to work with trauma. It is possible to recover from these events and integrate them into the wider story of your life.