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No, That's Not a Trauma Response

"I thought I had overcome my PTSD, but I still really like my high-intensity job. I put my life on the line sometimes - but this work is so meaningful to me. My wife says that if I don't quit, it means I haven't recovered from my trauma yet. Is that true?"

"I've struggled with OCD all my life, since I was a little kid. Life wasn't perfect, but I feel like I had a pretty normal childhood, aside from having to learn to manage my OCD. But I saw online that OCD is a trauma response. Do I have a trauma history I don't remember? Am I missing something?"

"I'm really thoughtful about other people and their feelings. I just feel a lot of empathy. Something online said that feeling other people's feelings strongly is a trauma response. I always thought being sensitive was ok, and I don't feel like I've ever been traumatized. Is empathy a bad thing?"

Alright y'all, can I say a few truths here?

Your normal personality traits are not trauma responses.

You can have a mental health condition even if you don't have a trauma history.

Digging for trauma that isn't there won't help you heal.

And here's one for the people in the back...

Social media is not therapy.

In recent years, it seems like "that's a trauma response" has become a social media default explanation for any number of mental health struggles - or even normal human experiences. Everything from anxiety to OCD to empathy to being an independent spirit is being linked to trauma in social media echo chambers online.

I understand why this is happening. There is tremendous value in validating the experiences of people who have been through traumatic experiences, especially childhood trauma. And for those who have been gaslit and judged for their pain, it makes a lot of sense to push back - "hey, this isn't my fault!" Sometimes, looking at your experiences through the lens of trauma can make it all fit together and finally make sense.

But y'all be careful, because that gaslighting is also happening on the other side of this problem. Sometimes, trying to fit things into the lens of trauma makes it more confusing, and harder to heal. I've seen more folks than I can count who are totally confused about the difference between a trauma response, a non-trauma-related mental health challenge, and normal human experiences.

There are a few reasons why this felt important enough to write about.

The first thing - I often see folks coming into my practice with OCD, who have seen therapists who spent years trying to find a nonexistent traumatic cause for their OCD.

The biggest tragedy of this is that OCD is so effectively treated with Exposure and Response Prevention. Relieving suffering from OCD can take just a couple of months of the right treatment. When I encounter clients who have wasted years in therapy, usually trying to "root out the cause" of the OCD, it breaks my heart. For these folks, that means years of suffering with OCD while going through treatment that will never work.

The second thing - I often see folks coming into my practice with PTSD, who have very good chances of healing from trauma. (And, if you'd like to hear more, this episode of This American Life does a great job of explaining how that happens.) But when every social media account says that normal experiences, like empathy, are trauma responses - people start wondering, "Have I really healed yet? Is something still wrong with me?" This isn't helping people with PTSD in their recovery.

If you've found a trauma-informed lens to be healing and helpful for you, I won't knock it. Many different behaviors and personality traits, in some people, may be linked to trauma. But I've met too many people who are further from healing than they were before because of this trend.

  • If your friends, your loved ones, social media accounts, or even your therapist are telling you that your experiences are due to trauma - but you're not buying it? It's okay not to let yourself be gaslit here.

  • If you reflect on the way you are living, and it is genuinely working for you, there is no reason to question whether your life decisions are a trauma response. It's okay not to let yourself be gaslit here.

  • If you're seeing a therapist who keeps trying to figure out what trauma caused your OCD/anxiety/panic attacks, and it's not working - it's okay to find someone who will take a different approach with you. It's okay not to let yourself be gaslit here.

If you don't see your experiences as traumatic, they probably weren't. The lens of trauma may not be what you need. It's okay not to let yourself be gaslit here.


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