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7 Myths About Trauma

Bringing traumatic events into the spotlight and dispelling myths.

Key points

  • Trauma is often misunderstood and its significance can be diluted by overgeneralization and misinformation.
  • Debunking widespread myths can help foster a balanced perspective.
  • Not all adverse experiences equate to trauma.

Even though trauma is having its moment, there have been periods where it was ignored, discredited, and denied as a “real” issue. These fluctuations in attention have often been influenced by misinterpretations, overgeneralizations, and inconvenient implications.

Today, not only is trauma studied more extensively than ever before, but the term "trauma" is also increasingly applied to almost any emotional difficulty or stressful event—which raises questions about whether it might once again lose its significance, possibly becoming a figurative expression or dismissed as a mere pop-psychology trend. In a matter of seconds, we can inform thousands of individuals of something we misread or misinterpreted. I refer to this phenomenon as "psycho-gossip," where many individuals discuss their own or others’ mental disorders in a tone intended to entertain viewers and gain their approval.

In addition to the dissemination of information (or, rather, misinformation) on social media, I have encountered many individuals who label any emotional discomfort they experience as "trauma," or claim to be traumatized by trivial events like being honked at by another driver. This is why I found it important to accurately assess the nature of individual experiences and determine the extent of the resulting damage.

Clarifying popular myths—like the belief that "trauma's damage is irreversible" and the notion that "everyone experiences trauma to some degree"—can prevent more misinformation by normalizing human experience and de-pathologizing certain beliefs

While these catastrophic events remain undeniably traumatic, the field of psychology now recognizes that the impact of an experience is subjective and highly personal. This shift has led us to explore the myths surrounding what truly constitutes a traumatic event.

Myth 1: Trauma is unavoidable. While it’s true that we will all encounter distressing and overwhelming events at some point in our life, it’s critical to distinguish between adverse experiences and traumatic ones. Not all adverse experiences equate to trauma, and simply going through adversity doesn’t necessarily make us traumatized.

Humans are inherently resilient and our system naturally leans towards health, unless there are no other options. The belief that trauma is unavoidable can perpetuate a sense of helplessness and resignation, which may actually erode our resilience and undermine our efforts to prevent or mitigate the impact of fear. Feeling defeated may lead us to perceive every experience as adverse and damaging, even though not every emotional difficulty has a lasting effect on our nervous system. Just think of how significantly different the effect of a scratch versus losing a limb is.

Myth 2: Trauma is always caused by an identifiable major event. It was once believed that individuals who experienced trauma could always pinpoint the exact event responsible for their distress. Today, however, we understand that some people may feel intense fear without knowing the precise cause.

Feeling unsafe is highly subjective, which makes it challenging to generalize about what triggers our most intense protective responses. Additionally, a phenomenon I refer to as "emotional backlashes" activates fragments of traumatic memories as emotions and reactions felt solely due to the present situation, without the awareness that they are trauma responses triggered by past events.

Myth 3: Only dramatic events can cause trauma. The understanding of what constitutes traumatization has broadened beyond extreme events and dramatic responses. Trauma responses can be activated by subtle, chronic, painful experiences that may drive the person slowly to feeling lost, hopeless, and isolated, often without obvious indications. These experiences can keep an individual in a perpetual state of insecurity and fear, which may be internalized and concealed.

Source: Photo by Kammeran Gonzalez-Keola / Pexels
Source: Photo by Kammeran Gonzalez-Keola / Pexels

What one person finds traumatizing might not even be bothersome to another. Our perception shapes our brain's reaction to a situation, regardless of the actual level of threat, and our responses are highly individualized.

Myth 4: All events that activate the fight-or-flight are traumatizing. It's a common misconception that every instance triggering our fight-or-flight response results in trauma. While this response is an innate survival mechanism activated during perceived threats, not every activation leads to trauma.

Trauma occurs when we are unable to return to a state of equilibrium after the threat has passed, leaving us in a prolonged state of stress or fear. In reality, many daily occurrences may trigger the fight-or-flight response—such as narrowly avoiding a fall, feeling an anger outburst, getting into a competition, or encountering a barking dog—but they very rarely result in lasting psychological trauma.

Myth 5: Trauma is only experienced by those directly involved in a traumatic event. There is something called “vicarious trauma” that occurs to some individuals who indirectly get exposed to traumatic events through witnessing or hearing about the experiences of others. The brain receives the emotional message that there is danger and activates survival mechanisms as if the person were under threat. Therefore, the witness can develop symptoms as if the event had happened to them.

Myth 6: Neglect during childhood is as traumatic as abuse. Abuse and neglect each have distinct impacts on children. Physical and emotional abuse directly traumatize children due to their constant fear of when the next incident might occur, causing their system to be filled with stress hormones that can hinder their development.

On the other hand, neglect, particularly emotional neglect, may not always be as visible or immediate in its effects but can be equally damaging in the long term. However, neglect is not necessarily traumatizing.

Myth 7: Emotional abuse isn’t as damaging as sexual abuse. When we are talking about trauma, we can’t forget that what is traumatic has a very subjective nature. Emotional abuse, while lacking the physical violations of sexual abuse, can inflict profound psychological scars. Both types of abuse can lead to long-lasting effects and a series of symptoms depending on many factors.

The impact of emotional abuse can sometimes be subtle and insidious, eroding self-worth and altering one's perception of safety and trust over time. Similarly, sexual abuse can profoundly affect one's sense of self, agency, and security. Hard to compare because each person reacts uniquely to abuse, influenced by their resilience, previous experiences, and support systems. Either type can be as damaging as the other for some individuals, or one might be more damaging than the other for certain people.

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