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What Does It Mean to Be "Traumatized"?

It doesn't happen from a bad hair day.

Last week, my girlfriend and I went to our favorite Italian restaurant, and she found a hair in her linguine. Now, she's refusing to go back. She says the hair thing was so "gross" that now she's "traumatized." What does that even mean? Can you really get PTSD from finding hair in your pasta? Are my only two choices to dump my girlfriend or be forced to live a life that's gluten-free?

Americans are prone to extremes, which is apparent in our language. People describe their days as either "totes awesome" or "complete crap." They judge others to be either "geniuses" or "morons." This penchant for hyperbole is also present in the way we talk about our feelings. People rarely describe feeling down or blue anymore. Instead, when people are sad (even just a little bit) they tend to say they are "depressed." When they are anxious (even just a little bit), they complain that they are "freaking out."

Using exaggerated language to express our emotions matters because, over time, the words we use become our reality. If a student says she's depressed every time she gets a B on a math test—even though using such strong language is inaccurate—in time she may really become depressed. I believe the same thing happens when people routinely say that they are traumatized by minor things like finding a strand of hair in food. Actually, they are just disgusted. But over time, when people continuously use over-the-top language to describe even minor emotions, they can make themselves believe they feel worse than they actually do. This is the definition of a drama queen (or king).

Can a person be traumatized by a strand of hair in a plate of pasta? Yes and no. If a person is overly dramatic, they can make themselves believe that they are traumatized by anything. But that doesn't mean they should be.

The types of events that psychologists would deem truly traumatizing are those that cause great distress. Accidents, natural disasters, illnesses, serious financial troubles, violence, and the loss of loved ones all have the capacity to be genuinely traumatic. But while psychological trauma can sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, they are not the same thing. Psychological trauma is a general term used to describe feeling emotionally overwhelmed by circumstances. Nearly every person will experience psychological trauma at some point in their lives.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness that is brought on by a strict set of circumstances that result in specific, severe symptoms. Less than 8 percent of the population will ever develop PTSD.

My advice is for you and your girlfriend to turn down the dial on the drama and try to start using more precise language to describe how you genuinely feel. It might also be good to lay off the carbs.

More from Michelle Stevens, Ph.D.,
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