What’s the difference between a “tough time” and actual trauma?

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Would you say that terrible blind date you went on was traumatizing? Did a scary movie leave you so traumatized you’re now scared of the dark? Were you blindsided by layoffs at work and now feel helpless, paralyzed, and yes, traumatized? Using the word trauma may give your emotional situations a bit more heft, but is that difficult thing you’re going through actual trauma?

According to Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD, whose new book Journey Through Trauma takes a deep dive into the topic, the actual definition of trauma is: “An event or experience that overwhelms your capacities to depend on or protect yourself. It renders you helpless,” she says.

“You need someone to hold you the way a cast holds a broken bone.” —Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD

That’s not to discount the damage a rough time can cause a person. The death of a loved one or a break up—especially one that’s unexpected—can be debilitating. But those “tough times,” while they do cause suffering and grief, “don’t all rise to trauma,” says Dr. Schmelzer. “They don’t push past our defenses. You’re devastated, but usually you have enough resources—friends and family—to get you through it. You mend in your own support system and don’t need professional help, even though you’re in pain.”

According to Dr. Schmelzer, it’s this bit—the need for a neutral, often professional, supporter—that sets trauma apart. “You need someone to hold you the way a cast holds a broken bone,” she says. “You wouldn’t take your weight off of the wound if you couldn’t lean your weight on somebody else.”

What is trauma? How to know if you're a victim
Photo: Stocksy/GIC

People who have experienced real trauma—like the students who witnessed the massacre of their classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February and the gymnasts who silently suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar for years—are often forced to relive the events time and time again. With what’s known as “repeated trauma,” they see the scenes played back through media coverage or are triggered by unavoidable associations in their daily lives (like when the shooting survivors return to school). When this happens, sufferers shut a part of themselves down and withdrawal from their world, Dr. Schmelzer says. You stay stuck in the trauma and are unable to grow and move forward.

Repeated trauma sufferers can go numb from facing their trauma over and over.

Here’s why: Think about the reaction you might have after the impact of a car accident. Your adrenaline starts pumping, your heart races, you break into a sweat—it’s as close to an out-of-body experience as you can get. “We’re not physiologically designed to have that acute response to trauma over and over and over again,” explains Dr. Schmelzer. “There’s no way you can gear up to go through a car accident every single day of your life.”

Instead, repeated trauma sufferers can go numb from facing their trauma over and over, she says. They build protections to get through it, often becoming depressed. And worse, their emotional growth and development is stunted until they’re ready to start the healing process.

Once a trauma victim decides to seek treatment, it’s important they find a neutral party, be it a psychologist, clergy member, or a support group, Dr. Schmelzer says. “Don’t turn to a person in your life who loves you, because they’re there for other reasons,” she says. “They need you, too, and therefore, they can’t entirely be leaned on.”

And if you’re the loved one supporting a trauma survivor, know this one very important thing: You’re not there to fix them, Dr. Schmelzer says. You can only offer your support and encouragement.

Therapy is changing with the times—here’s what the future holds. And thankfully, we’ve also entered the era of mental health authenticity.

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