Misery does not equal trauma

As mental health stigmas continue to erode, and people become more open and vulnerable in talking about their lives and their experiences and effects of those experiences, certain labels have risen to the top. Anxiety and depression are still the most common reasons for referral to counselling, but in recent years trauma has been rapidly on the rise.

In this post I want to lay out a few misconceptions about what trauma is and isn’t, and how to tell the difference, as well as talk about why these distinctions might be important.

The most common way that trauma language is deployed, by both clients and therapists, is to label difficult or even terrible experiences as simply being traumatic. We tell a story about something bad that happened, and ipso facto (by that very fact), a person is labelled as having trauma. This is unsurprising, because it appeals to our common sense. Isn’t that what trauma is, exactly that… a bad experience?

But actually no, that’s not at all what Counselling Psychologists and other mental health clinicians should be thinking about when we are working with trauma. The famous writer Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, is quoted to say “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” This also applies to trauma. Let’s use some examples.

Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.

Aldous Huxley

Most of us would think of high speed car accidents as being a “traumatic experience,” and yet, the athletes who drive racing cars for a living and routinely crash them experience post-traumatic symptoms at a tiny fraction of the rate that people in everyday car accidents experience symptoms. Rock climbers dancing on the edge of a mountain routinely endure exposure that would seem horrifying to a layperson. Another example might be a group of siblings, some of whom relate to that shared childhood in a traumatic way, and others who do not, despite having a largely shared experience of the early house and home.

What explains this? Certainly the professional racecar drivers still consider the car crash to be a miserable and terrifying experience. But what disqualifies that from a label of trauma, and why does that matter at all?

Rock Climbing
Photo by Elijah Sargent

Trauma is more than having a bad time in our past. Trauma is an ongoing disruption in our physical response system, which persists in the presence. Trauma is a measurable, experiential miscalibration of how we perceive safety and danger that exists in our everyday life AND that exists to a sufficient degree to create distress, discomfort, and other problems in living.

Many of us, and most likely all of us, will experience bad, and even terrifying or frightening things, but only some of us will have our nervous systems “reprogrammed” (via simple Pavlovian learning) in ways which are highly distressing and need to be brought back to a better calibrated homeostatic set point.

Trauma, PTSD and CPTSD are all very real and powerful states. These labels represents a nervous system, a cognitive system, and an emotional system, which have reacted very strongly to incredible (often life threatening) experiences, to provide for the safety of the person we’ll be in the future. Unfortunately, the the ways of being in the world that keep a person safe in extreme situations hinders everyday life—these new ways of keeping one’s body safe are too powerful. For example, a startle reflex that becomes highly sensitized can make us “jump” in all kinds of social situations—this might be a small thing, but it creates obvious challenges to relaxation, intimacy, or even easy comradery.

Merely experiencing fear and misery is not trauma. It’s what you do with that experience that can lead to the kinds of severe, distressing, clinical trauma. That’s not to say, at all, that terrifying and miserable experiences don’t suck. They do. And in fact, whether or not they have led to the kind of severe trauma that this article discusses shouldn’t be seen as a form of gatekeeping—or self-gatekeeping–—on whether or not we might choose to get help in navigating those memories and histories. Bad times can influence us in all kinds of ways, with trauma being the most severe instance. But long before our bodies and nervous systems jump in to respond to experience, our active minds have shaped those stories into meaningful categories and lessons for the future. Even without turning to trauma, we are justified in wanting to discuss, remember, and unpack the meanings of crucial pieces of our histories.

Misery is not trauma. But misery is worth talking about whether or not it has led to severe trauma.