But I often wonder if my trauma is “enough” to qualify as real trauma. How dare I claim this when people experience domestic violence daily or when kids are currently separated from their parents and sitting in cages? Or when there are countless instances of child abuse, repeated sexual assaults, and so much more?
Does my pain count?
The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines trauma as:
Any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.
A couple of years ago, I asked my boyfriend at the time what we should have for dinner. Suddenly, my heart started racing. I became fearful that he would get angry out of nowhere. That he would hate my suggestions. That we would go to a restaurant, he wouldn’t like it, and then he would take it out on me later. This made no sense. The arguments I got into with my ex-husband about food were almost daily. Thinking about what we would eat for dinner was extremely stressful, and, while I am not triggered nearly as much, it still comes up. This is the “long-lasting negative effect” of trauma. My boyfriend was nothing like my ex, but my brain told me otherwise.
My brain told me I couldn’t understand what he wanted. It made me cry in the car while driving. It gives me anxiety whenever I walk into one of his favorite restaurants more than five years later. After years of therapy and writing about my trauma, this effects of emotional abuse still live in my body.
My trauma is real. My trauma is valid. My trauma is enough.
Yours is too.
Stress takes a massive toll on your mind and body. It can affect menstrual cycles, cause shortness of breath, and lead to chronic gastrointestinal problems. When we are triggered, symptoms reappear because neural pathways we paved over a long period of time. We don’t have to be beaten daily to be triggered. All that has to happen is a negative experience with a certain amount of frequency that it creates a long-lasting effect.
And while we might experience the effects of trauma less over time, it can still spring up when you thought you had it “handled.”
Do not minimize your trauma.
It’s so easy to minimize our trauma, especially when we hear about someone else that hurts “more.” So we ignore it. We keep it in the past, tucked away, never to bother us again.
Mental health is not a competition. We are all in different bodies and have different experiences, all worth exploring.
The only way out is through.
The source of trauma can also come in the form of structural constraints. Maybe your parents neglected you because they were busy working three jobs. Maybe this was because they got laid off due to an economic downturn. Perhaps you experienced trauma because you grew up in poverty with overcrowded classrooms and no one to take care of you when you got home. Maybe your family fled their home country as refugees a couple of generations ago and never healed.
If trauma is ignored, it passes down from one generation to the next. So while it might seem distant, oftentimes it is right under our nose. I’m so grateful for my Indian immigrant parents’ hard work, money-saving, and commitment to their children’s education. But no amount of money or security erases history. It doesn’t erase the colonization of India. It doesn’t address sexist expectations. It doesn’t give voice to my dad’s silence.
The only thing that works is telling our story. Talk to a professional, to a friend, to whoever might listen with a compassionate heart. But that is just the first step. It takes years to work through our personal and family trauma.
Do not make yourself small by dismissing your trauma. Pain is pain, and it is more powerful to get to the root of it than to pretend it isn’t there. One way or another, it’s coming for you. Will you be there to welcome it with a hug or will you let it destroy you first?