We’ve all heard of the word trauma and its possible long-term consequence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When people think about trauma they often think of big events like war, natural disasters, terrorism, or sexual assault. While it is true that these shock traumas are intense, life-threatening experiences that have the potential to cause lasting challenges for the survivors, there are a plethora of other experiences that are traumatic as well.
Developmental trauma happens over time, such as throughout childhood, or during a relationship. Emotional neglect from one or both primary caregivers, is an example of developmental trauma, as is school bullying, growing up with a substance-using or narcissistic parent, body-shaming, witnessing violence in the home or community, chronic medical conditions, being in a psychologically abusive relationship, or a toxic boss or work environment. In addition, there are certain populations in our country that experience trauma in ways many of us cannot fully appreciate unless we are a member of that population.
Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have had to, for example, interact with racist, discriminatory systems from academics to employment and housing, to federal, state, and local policies, to healthcare, and judicial systems, that impact their wellbeing, and physical and emotional health. Also, this population has experienced threats of safety and terrible violence from systems, such as the police. Throughout time, media depictions have been deeply harmful. In 2020, Asian Americans became the target of verbal harassment and physical attacks after being blamed by political leaders for the novel coronavirus. There is a legacy of intergenerational and collective trauma, especially in black and indigenous cultures, spanning hundreds of years that science is only beginning to uncover and understand. This is trauma.
Throughout their lives, LGBTQ+ individuals have had to navigate a political system in the US that has tried and succeeded many times, to erase them. When not erased, television and movie depictions have been, until more recently, painfully problematic. Many have experienced psychological abuse from religious leaders and communities in the form of persistent, negative messages and behavior that time and again tell LGBTQ+ individuals that their lives, their very essence, is immoral, vile, and disgusting. Many LGBTQ+ individuals are cast out and abandoned by their parents, families, and communities. This is trauma.
While women, as a group, have made incredible progress over the last 100+ years in creating agency over their own lives, it has been an uphill struggle with ongoing battles with socio-political forces that believed (and some that continue to believe) a woman has a certain place or role in our society. Sexism, a consequence of patriarchy, has perpetuated the lie that men are superior to women, that rigid gender roles are not only appropriate but expected, and that women are here for the pleasure of men. The effects of sexism, which can show up in just about every aspect of a woman's life, lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. This is trauma.
Trauma is any stressor that impacts our view of ourselves, others, and the world itself. Many trauma survivors view themselves as deeply flawed, or even bad, that others are not safe, and the world is a dangerous place. These core beliefs, and their associated emotions of shame, guilt, rage, or fear can occur from a single, terrible event or are reinforced over a period of years. Over time, trauma has a way of making our world smaller and smaller because so many things feel dangerous and scary. People can become extremely guarded, isolated, numb, unable to control certain emotions, or they may feel like they have to stay busy until they crash each day from exhaustion.
Trauma doesn’t always have to lead to the development of PTSD. It can lead to other mental health conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, sleep disorders, and substance use disorders.
Perhaps the most damaging is trauma’s impact on our relationships. Because many forms of trauma occur in the context of a relationship, relationships trigger intense emotional reactions, such as rage and shame, and it can be difficult to overcome deeply held rigid beliefs about people. Trauma survivors struggle to trust others, and intimacy can feel frightening or even unattainable.
While trauma is part of the human experience, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. There are so many therapies now that can help us process trauma, work through challenging emotions, and move beyond life-limiting negative beliefs that hold us back from truly living and loving.
If your life has been impacted by trauma, if anything in this article speaks to you, please contact a licensed mental health professional who specializes in treating trauma, such as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, or Licensed Clinical Psychologist. All are educated and trained to help you process trauma and work toward wellness.
-Bryan D Norman, LCSW
Numinous Counseling and Wellness, LLC stands in solidarity with reproductive rights and body autonomy, the BIPOC community, and the LGBTQIAP community. We embrace difference, diversity, and intersectionality. We do not tolerate discrimination or bigotry in this practice.