Why We Should Stop Minimizing Our Trauma

October 6, 2022

This article was written by our graduate intern Jaclyn Bogner

What is trauma?  

Trauma is any experience—or series of experiences—that overwhelms our ability to cope. While there are a range of post-traumatic symptoms people experience, some common ones include having flashbacks (i.e., a vivid experience where a past traumatic event feels like it is happening in real time), feeling overwhelmed, “spacing out,” feeling ashamed, or finding you react more strongly to certain things than other people do. Whether an experience constitutes trauma does not depend on other people’s opinions, nor does it rest on how others have responded to similar experiences. It also is not contingent on whether we meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is widespread agreement among trauma researchers and clinical providers that PTSD in fact fails to capture many post-traumatic symptoms. Further, given the ubiquity of trauma exposure, many health care organizations now utilize a trauma-informed care approach, which assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have experienced trauma. The bottom line is that our minds and bodies—which are deeply interconnected—are the ones to determine whether something was traumatic, not other people or diagnostic criteria.  

Why do people minimize their trauma?  

It is not uncommon for us to minimize our trauma or downright reject the idea that an experience is affecting us. Why do we do this, though? Well, for a range of reasons. Naturally, our brains want to soften the blow of experiences that overwhelm our ability to cope. This is actually an adaptive form of coping that allows us to function in our everyday lives. However, while it may be helpful in the short-term and allow us to do things like work, attend school, etc., long-term minimization may prolong our healing.   

We may also minimize our trauma because of the messages—both implicit and explicit—we receive from loved ones, peers, and society at large, including unreliable indicators about what meets the criteria for “real” trauma, and how we “should” respond to certain experiences. For example, how many of us have heard that we should be “over” something that happened to us? Or that we shouldn’t talk about it? Or that what happened to us wasn’t that big of a deal compared to what others have gone through? These messages do not help us work through our trauma but instead intensify our pain, distort our reality, and hinder our ability to heal.  

In a similar vein, we may minimize our trauma because we are using other people as a yardstick for how we should feel. People respond to similar experiences in different ways—what may be traumatizing for one person may not be for another. This can be due to a range of factors, such as how much stress is in a person’s life, whether they experienced single or multiple traumatic events, the amount of social support they have, etc. What is important is not how someone else has responded to an experience but that we are honoring our body and mind’s need for healing.  

We may also minimize our trauma because we are comparing it to what are commonly believed to be more “severe” forms of trauma. Someone who experienced repeated unwanted sexual harassment, for example, may minimize the impact of these experiences on their life because the harassment did not escalate to rape. However, this is not the trauma Olympics—trauma does not have to be physical or meet exact criteria for it to have a serious and long-lasting negative effect on us. Rather than comparing our trauma to “what could have happened” or “worse” types of trauma, we must acknowledge the impact that our trauma is having on us. When we invalidate our pain, we are ignoring our body and mind’s pleas for help and delaying our healing process. Until we have dealt with our trauma, it will continue to find ways of creeping back up into our lives.     

How do people stop minimizing their trauma and begin healing?  

 To break your habit of minimizing your pain and to finally begin your healing journey, seek out a professional who is experienced in helping trauma survivors, such as a therapist or a healer from your cultural background. Trauma survivors may also benefit from educating themselves on the impact of traumatic events and the healing process. There are many great books out there for this, including The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk and Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine. Podcasts can also a be great way of learning new information about trauma and mental health more generally. Be sure to check the podcaster’s training or background to ensure you are getting reliable information.  

In addition to seeking help and resources, engaging in self-care—healthy activities that make you feel good and promote your overall well-being—is a great way of managing trauma-related symptoms and stressors. Try creating a list of self-care activities that you enjoy and engage in those activities as often as you can. They don’t have to be anything extravagant; some common ones include doing artwork, praying, going for a walk, or talking to a supportive friend. The only criterion is that the activity feels nourishing, whether it be mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.   

Ultimately, listen to your mind and body—they are signaling to you that you need to tend to your unresolved pain. The sooner you stop minimizing your negative experiences, tend to your needs, and seek healing, the sooner you can reduce the weight of your trauma and become the healthier, more whole version of yourself that you are meant to be.  

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