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Please make use of the free National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7; simply call or text 988
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You can also dial 911, or visit your local Emergency Room.
Mental Health Resources
What is Trauma?
A trauma can be thought of as an emotional shock. It is an event, or series of events that overwhelm our capacity to cope. Culturally, the word “trauma” has the most serious undertones. Many people only think of the capital-T versions, such as things experienced by war veterans, or victims of physical and sexual abuse. As a result, many do not consider their experiences to be serious enough to qualify. For example, some may dismiss sexual harassment in comparison to rape, as a child regularly being expected to provide emotional and/or physical care for a parent, or referring to a family member or romantic partner as only "mean," when they would regularly be put-down by that person.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5-TR) defines trauma as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways: direct experiencing, witnessing the event(s), learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or friend, or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to negative details of traumatic events (i.e. first responders).” However, that doesn't necessarily capture the full scope of traumatic experiences including complex trauma (with additional unique symptoms from the cumulative effects of repeated overt abuse and/or emotional/physical neglect usually beginning in childhood), intergenerational trauma (how the aftereffects of previous generations are passed down in behavioral and biological ways), as well as systemic abuse (political, educational and occupational policies that limit access to resources or opportunities for education or other advancement) and cultural trauma (includes microaggressions-less obvious denigration/exclusion) targeted toward specific racial, ethnic, religious groups.
So, while the DSM's definition is very limited, by the more general definition, most of us have experienced trauma at least once in our lives. And while that doesn't mean we all have PTSD, these experiences can still be very challenging to navigate, and have likely left a mark on our psyche. Most of us have lost loved ones, or seen them fall ill; or perhaps we have been the ones to experience serious medical issues. Some of us currently, or once lived, in or near violent neighborhoods. We’ve been in car accidents, or gone to war, survived disastrous weather events or fires, or experienced sexually or physically inappropriate behavior. In fact, in 2015, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that in the U.S. 43.5% or 52.2 million women, and 24.8% or 27.4 million men reported experiencing some type of contact sexual violence (unwanted sexual contact including but not limited to rape). Furthermore, of those numbers, the vast majority of attempted and completed rape occurred before the age of 18 for 81.3% of women and 70.8% of men. In addition, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence (defined as sexual and/or physical abuse and/or stalking) in their lifetimes. The CDC report does not differentiate between straight or LGTBQ couples, but interpersonal and sexual violence can and does occur in all groups. I think it's also important to note that these numbers only reflect what is reported, meaning that the actual numbers may be much higher. Not to mention the impact of COVID-19 and mandated social isolation!
As shocking as these statistics are, the good news is that human beings are remarkably resilient! We survive. We adapt. We have the capacity to endure painful experiences and still go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Problems arise when people struggle to bounce back, when they feel trapped and weighed down by their painful experiences.
Some people try to cope in more obviously unhealthy ways, like alcohol and drug addiction, or self-harm (cutting, burning, or other ways of physically hurting oneself). Others may engage in less obvious yet still unhealthy coping behaviors which can still interfere with relationships and health, such as working all the time, driving recklessly, taking up dangerous hobbies, or engaging in high-risk sexual behavior (like not using condoms with multiple partners). While it is a natural and understandable response to want to avoid reminders of painful experiences, it's when people avoid thinking and talk about it that they often feel stuck.