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PTSD Series: Traumatic Experiences versus Trauma Reactions

I’ve been through a lot in my life, and lately I’ve been really struggling. I feel like my past experiences are a part of that, but when I read descriptions of PTSD, it doesn’t sound like me. Does that mean my trauma didn’t affect me?

I experienced abuse in childhood, but I think I’m ok now. It feels like all of that is well in the past – I don’t really think about it much anymore. Am I in denial?

Alright y’all, it’s time to set the story straight.

Experiencing trauma is not the same thing as having PTSD.

I’ve seen therapists claim they “treat trauma,” but this is a misnomer. Therapists don’t treat trauma – they treat trauma reactions. There's a big difference between having a history of trauma and having a mental health condition related to trauma. This distinction really matters. Here’s why.

People respond differently to trauma.

After a traumatic experience, people can react really differently. PTSD is only one of those ways. Sometimes after trauma, people are pretty resilient - they likely have a lot to process, but many people are able to do this on their own, with their own support networks. Are people who cope well after trauma in denial? No.

Sometimes, after trauma, people experience depression, or a substance abuse problem, or a specific anxiety disorder, or messier, complicated interpersonal difficulties, and they don't meet criteria for PTSD. Does this mean their trauma isn't real or impacting them? Does this mean their mental health difficulty is unrelated to trauma? No.

In actuality, almost all mental health conditions could be potentially linked to traumatic experiences. Even conditions that might seem much more biological, like schizophrenia, are often linked to trauma. Our psychological well-being is inextricably tied to our life experiences - and that manifests in different ways, for different people.

Effective treatment for PTSD is really different from effective treatment for other trauma reactions.

Evidence-based treatment for PTSD involves focusing on and processing specific traumatic experience(s). At length, in depth, in a pretty structured way. It's challenging work, but if you have PTSD, this work can be profoundly healing.

If you don't have PTSD, focusing deliberately on the trauma may not be the best thing, therapeutically. Trauma being the cause doesn't necessarily mean that trauma processing is the cure. It really depends on your specific symptoms. For example - sometimes trauma results in lasting changes to how you function in relationships, but the specific memories don't hold much emotional charge anymore. In this case, it makes a lot more sense to focus on ways to relate differently to others, with an understanding that trauma impacted the development of those difficulties.

Having a trauma history is not a life sentence.

When you've been through a trauma, there's no undoing it. As much as I wish that the horrors of the past could be erased, there is no such thing as moving backward. Your life experiences forevermore are the road you have traveled down. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer forever.

PTSD is treatable. And for a sizable portion of people, we are not talking just "managing symptoms better" treatable. Actually, "your PTSD is in remission and may never return" treatable. When we equate a trauma history with trauma reactions, we confuse the unchangeable reality of the past with the quite changeable reality of the future.

It’s okay to be resilient in the face of trauma.

Resilience in the face of trauma is not: 1) proof that it did not hurt or impact you, 2) permission for someone to do it again, 3) a signal that it "wasn't that bad," 4) a form of denial. In fact, the most common reaction to trauma is resilience.

At times, I think resilience is challenging in part because of how often trauma survivors are not believed. If you are not believed, sometimes the only proof that you have is your suffering. That can make it really, really hard to recover. But just so you know - if you decide to work on recovery, you're still allowed to be furious about what happened. Resilience is normal and is not proof that you weren't impacted. Your mental health does not have to be the smoking gun.

No portion of this blog post should be taken as medical advice. Be sure to consult a licensed mental health professional if you are curious about how this information applies specifically to you and your personal treatment plan.


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