How To Explain Trauma To People Who Don't Get It
So many times I've heard civilians say, "You mean, major trauma that leads to PTSD happens outside of the military?" The answer, of course, is a big, resounding, YES! The problem is that we don't have enough sources demystifying trauma and PTSD so that it's easy to see where it comes from and how it happens (Finding Meaning in Trauma and PTSD).
Have you ever heard about someone else's awful traumatic experience and thought that yours was inconsequential, or less awful? All too often we look at the experience of others and judge our own experiences against them. But that's fundamentally wrong. Just because your trauma may not, on the surface, appear "as bad" as someone else's doesn't mean it's any less traumatic or has less adverse effects.
Adding to this kind of thinking is the opinion of other people. Whether you're in a competitive support group where members try to outdo each other with horror stories, or you're surrounded by people who don't understand what trauma is, it's easy to feel devalued and invalidated by the comments of the world outside.
Explaining Trauma and PTSD Starts with Knowledge
Educating yourself about how to define trauma becomes critical in appreciating your own experience and recovery process, plus educating those around you. This week, I had a terrific conversation with Judy Crane, founder of The Refuge - A Healing Place, a treatment center for addiction, trauma and PTSD recovery. During our chat, Judy defined trauma down to a very minute level. I want to share it with you and hope that you'll share it with others so that we spread the word about what trauma really means.
What is Trauma?
"anything less than nurturing."
Wow, that casts a wide net and repositions trauma from the exotic to the every day, which makes it much more accessible and ubiquitous. If you've ever felt like you're separate or disconnected from the world because of your trauma, the truth is that the world is full of it; you are very connected, indeed.
Judy then went on to deepen the definition by saying that trauma is
"an event or experience that changes your vision of yourself and your place in the world."
From this perspective, you (and anyone you share this info with) can see how easily trauma leaves its mark. Without your permission, a negative, frightening, hurtful or disempowering event occurs that shifts you into a place of feeling "less than". From here, it's a slippery slope to feeling unworthy, undeserving, purposeless and useless, the very feelings that contribute to posttraumatic symptoms and interrupt a normal life.
Explain Trauma & PTSD Simply; Others Will Get It
The next time someone (including you) poo-poos your trauma or PTSD experience or belittles the effects it's had on you, share Judy's simple explanations. You can say, for example,
Trauma is anything less than nurturing that changes your vision of yourself and your place in the world.
Explain, too, that trauma happens in both the big and little moments of how life negatively alters you.
From bullying to verbal abuse to abandonment and neglect, trauma comes in as many forms, shapes and sizes as the human race. That means experiencing trauma is part of the human condition. When you feel traumatized you are a normal, feeling, thinking being who has just had a perspective shift that can be shocking, startling, disconcerting and leave you feeling at a loss for how to respond.
Rosenthal, M. (2014, January 1). How To Explain Trauma To People Who Don't Get It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2014/01/feeling-misunderstood-how-to-explain-trauma-to-people-who-just-dont-get-it
Author: Michele Rosenthal
Since having PTSD myself, and trying to understand it, its impact on my life, and how to heal from the trauma, I've listened with great interest to veterans' stories, including those from the Great War (1914-18). Rape survivors' stories resonate with me too.
I have come to the understanding that when we experience horror, terror or pain, in some capacity that is beyond our set of life experiences, it is such a shock to us, it has completely blindsided us, it is overwhelming and beyond our ability to process ---- THIS is what creates PTSD.
The circumstances that finalise that process include overwhelming grief, overwhelming loss, overwhelming and unfixable change of such a magnitude as to be catastrophic, having NO ONE TO TELL, having NO WORDS to describe what happened, having NO ABILITY TO GET JUSTICE, not being listened to or believed when you do speak, being told by the abuser that it didn't happen... having your pain minimised... having your experience invalidated...these are all components that hammer the nails in of its construction.
We cannot process it, and so the nightmares come.
The flashbacks come.
The pain of injustice and violation comes.
We can't process the memories, there is no time-stamp attached to them, so they are as fresh as if they are still happening, or have just happened.
The anger comes like a tsunami; a constant cry for justice.
The waves of shame come, and parts of my brain go offline, so I blank out. With that, my social confidence diminishes.
The flashbacks and sense memories make me want to vomit, and jump out of my body, to escape. They are like fingernails down the blackboard.
The negative neuroplastic changes are activated, so that within fifteen minutes these painful thoughts are deconstructed, and unable to be remembered. The narrative of the horror is uncoupled like train carriages so that it cannot run through my mind in its entirety; only brief partial events are able to flicker across my conscious mind's screen.
The deep, wailing grief is just below the surface, just on the other side of me closing my eyes to sleep. Through the night I awaken suddenly startled, and immediately think "where am I? What's happening?". The nightmares of watching another helpless person being tortured (me, metaphorically) makes me wail, and I wake up sobbing.
Sometimes the grief engulfs me in a wave during waking hours, but I have no more tears for me. Another's suffering will touch me deeply, and my tears will pour out for them.
It's an extremely lonely thing to have.
I read in another place someone had written: "I'd rather have a broken arm than have PTSD, because at least there'd be a way to heal it, and an endpoint to the suffering.
I sighed, "how true".
I could add that it would be easier to show to others and have them understand.
You're a treasure, and a woman of great courage.
Anyone who battles despair daily and doesn't give into it is incredibly strong.
We are listening to you, and we understand what you've said.
That being said, it took me a long time to be able to talk about my trauma as well. There's no need to rush that. You can talk about it when and if you're ready. In your comment you said "trauma is psychological, emotional, as well as physical." And you're absolutely right! If you haven't already, I recommend reading "The Body Keeps The Score" by Bessel van der Kolk. Basically, he discusses how he discovered through clinical practice and research that our bodies store our trauma, and also that by healing trauma in the body (he highly recommends yoga), we can heal trauma in our minds as well. If you're not able to do work with words right now, maybe try working through your trauma physically.
I have also lost 2 of my brother's to suicide since 2008, one of them was a Veteran like you. He had PTSD and therefore he couldn't take the nightmares and flashbacks any longer. He died on Memorial Day 2010
Thank You for sharing your story and I will pray for you. Please take care of yourself and if you ever feel overwhelmed by your PTSD please remember this one saying; "Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem" Take care of yourself and your friends and family do already know that the things you went through are worse than they ever wanted or imagined.
Blessings to you.....
We are supposed to look the other way when the military frequents establishments that offer up women for sale? How is that not traumatizing those women and young girls? If you truly admitted what happens to get them to the position of that bed in that massage parlor you'd arm those women.
I often think I would have been better off in a war zone with a weapon in my hand than as a child brutally raped, trafficked, drugged and beat. At least I could have fought back.
I didn't enlist into a career where it would be likely I'd experience trauma. I didn't get that choice. Because I would not have made it.
I would not have chosen to have doctors and police fail to report the abuse. I would not have chosen to have police join in with the abusers and terrorize and abuse me.
At least the military receive respect from the police and don't have to live in fear of the very people that are supposed to protect them.
I can't even sit in a vehicle next to a police vehicle without trembling.
Some of those same men and women have further victimized me by belittling me. They have called me horrible things. Made things unbearable to the point of me wanting to die.
Well, this crazy woman has done more for others than you realize. I fought for the rights of the disabled. I fed and clothed your homeless veteran brothers. I went without so someone else would not. I spoke up, though trembling with fear, against the criminals wearing badges here at home. That's alot more courageous than picking up arms against others in order to line your pockets. You didn't do it for free, you got your 30 pieces of silver.
Ignorance is abundant in this world. My only consolation is that one day they will be judged as they have judged me. Until then i get to live this daily hell. My mistakes, being born and ever daring to have hope.
The traumatic events began n lasted 3 years.. Dad, uncle, cousin.. I ran away at 12. I had 1 thgt in my head.. I didn't care what happened to me out in tje world, it cld not possibly be worse than what happens to me here, everyday, at home w my family. I nvr went back. I don't want to look back. Outta the blue I find myself there.
A cigarette passed to close in the dark.. And I'm in the 9th circle of hell.. Everyone around me is still kewl.. I struggle not to react to my situation.. Talk myself down.. Murmur comfort words, self soothe..controlled breathing, quitely.. Above all don't freak out.. Afterwards I feel like I've ran a marathon. Completely depleted, shaky, clamy.. Thank God it was dark or I'd been busted... A few years after running away I get pinched n put in foster care. Counseling and group therapy
I cldnt talk.. Tell total strangers.. No.. I was goin to
Flunk group and spend 16 more weeks in the chair.. I was given the choice to write it out
I thgt it was perfect solution
I cldnt write a word... My whole body shook so hard i thgt i was havin a seizure.. 16 more weeks.... Still haven't written anything directly about it.. I said I didn't remember much.. So the enlightened ones felt I had to remember to come to terms n move on.. Who's idea was this?? The mind goes blank for a reason.. It was worse then for a long time.. I was placed in a suburban development, in a split level, with solid middle class folks
The foster dad was same as mine.. All that to end up exactly where I began, only in a nicer house.. My son is his.. The state took my baby, said I was an underage, promiscuous, unwed, unfit mother didn't even investigate him.. 17and 1/2 years later he goes down as a sex offender.. I'm only a biological mother to my son.. I can't bridge the gap no matter what.. I've tried endlessly.. Its a daily struggle. I don't want it to be. I can't get away from it.. Going to the bathroom the damage done is such I can't ignore it.. Bam.. There i am, instantly teleported to when and how that happened.. From that moment on, I struggle to get it back in the box, keep it there, I've never once succeeded in getting it off my mind..
Over time I was able to pinpoint some triggers. Others still hit me out of the blue. I tried to make a way in the world.. I jus don't fit in it anywhere.. I try to help others, hopefully I have.. Some at least.. They say I'm compassionate n a good listener..they thank me for walking back to good with them... How I wish I could be them and find my way to good.. I'm a loner cause its jus easier.. How can one get something like that across to Joe n Jane Normal?? Anytime I've tried has become an extension of my hell.. I come away beating myself up for even thinking telling anyone was a good idea
I loose them from my life when I was trying to bring them closer.. I'm 51 now alone and terminal..by the time i got to this point, i had visions of looking back on a life i was thankful for... In reality I'm Thankful the struggle is about over..
I just want you to know that I admire your courage for sharing your experience here with us, and it's clear that you've only skimmed the surface of it all.
I would come and sit with you. We could talk if you wanted. I would just listen, and give you a safe place to process and feel accepted. We could sit in silence, and just be. You'd have someone on your side.
I very much wish that I could make it right for you, and I'm sorry that you went through any of it.
You are a woman of great courage and resilience, and you are a precious person who should ALWAYS have been treated with respect & love. You deserved to be protected, and not predated on.
Thank you for sharing your excruciatingly painful experiences with us, and giving us a glimpse into the gross injustice and violations involved in human trafficking, and the deep pain of your life.
It is pain that is close to my heart, and to many others who are fighting to end human trafficking.
It is utterly abhorrent.
You are a precious person, and deserved to be treated with respect, dignity and love.
You deserved to be protected.
Your anger is totally justified.
You can let it out here.
You're amongst friends, and we are listening.
You're one of my heroes.
I'd imagine that most of your police force colleagues have some form of PTSD after some years of service.
Life becomes a question of "who am I now? What do I have to bring to a relationship and life now? How can I move on from this? What are the goal posts? Is it worth it?"
Add chronic pain to that and it becomes a search for significance.
Anyway, I always say the worst thing about going through traumas that lead to severe PTSD is not only dealing with the illness and all the painful reprecussions...but it's trying to explain it to others, family and friends (who've never been through it) in a way where they take it as seriously as you do. Or see the severity of it in the way that you do. And the sad truth is most won't give you the validation that you oh so desperately need. They're too busy criticizing. For the longest time I got treated like crap, like a person who was flawed and weak, when I am stronger than most of them will ever be. I'm just a strong human being who went through something that impacted my life and mind so tragically and fast that it overcame my natural ability to fight back. It impacted the tools that normally always helped me fight my life battles. So they'd be messed up too given a similar predicament. It just makes you feel even more understood and alone.
They don't understand that PTSD makes you lose the ability to control your thoughts and reactions/feelings that stems from those thoughts for a very long time. Doesn't make you immature, it just makes you human. That's why I'm so grateful for websites like yours that speaks nothing but the truth. It is quite comforting and affirming during the recovery process. It gives me a voice again. Thank you thank you Thank you! :)
everything you said resonated with me Angela.
My surgical damage made it impossible to do the things I previously did to decompress. The nightmares/flashbacks and intrusive thoughts made it impossible to sit and meditate, to calmly process, to journal. Every moment became a battle to distract myself, to FORGET and NOT think. It pushed me to my limits. I'd be sobbing silently in the toilet cubicle at work by the afternoon.
I was on a path to an inevitable nervous breakdown.
I'd been good at managing my stress before the assault that gave me PTSD, and the loss of that part of my life, and the enjoyment (of meditating and journalling) I'd lost as a result was part of the grieving process.
It is a downward spiral.
The depression also disconnects you from yourself. You can't be there for yourself.
I wish you continued healing and peace.
The most recent was the worst and I've struggled so much more because of it. During therapy my Doctor explained its accumulative and therefore making it worse this time.
So thank you for sharing. Atleast I don't feel so alone now
Changed my lufe! I found my 25 year old fiance dead, also I had 2 children that looked at him as a dad he same! Then 2012 I didn't know it could happen again but worse I lost my 14 year old daughter in a car accident when I got call that night I've never been the same no support like I needed I struggle daily still can't get my life on a normal routine I feel like Im slowly losing my mind scraes me! No one understands but ya that have BN through it's so aggravating ! Also haven't had good docs to get help needed! Thanks again I feel like you said can't explain what you said exactly how I feel thanku prayers to all ! Amy Danielle
But at the other side of this turmoil is the problem that you are still here
To deal with it. So amongst the heartbreak and turmoil find a place for you.
Grip on to the kitchen bench, let the tears of confusion run out and remember
You to need to allow yourself a way to move forward. Cry loads, play all the music that lets you roll through those emotions. Then go to the ocean, or some nature near you and let it all go. The hurt, the sorrow, the confusion and the regret. And remember that you need to find a way forward and that in tide and time this feeling of hurt will pass. Your son, your very confused and frightened son would want you to go on. To have hope, to have love, but to most crucially a life without heartache. He is watching down on you. Make him proud
Everything that you said resonated with me.
Only we know the startle response that keeps waking us during the night. We can't switch it off.
Everything looks bleak at 0300hrs.
It looks worse at 0400hrs.
Cue years of despair and thoughts of suicide at 0500hrs.
Only God is awake then too. Only He understands.
Only He is there to hold me. That's walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
So glad He's with me. I would have been dead long ago if not. (Violent assault and indecent assault and torture by a surgeon in Australia in 2011. Left me with nerve pain and damage, and nightmares, as you can all appreciate.)
I wish you all peace, comfort and healing.