Trauma is unfortunately fairly common. An estimated 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one traumatic event during their lifetime (The National Council for Behavioral Health, n.d.). Some examples of traumatic events are: experiencing or witnessing physical, sexual, emotional or childhood abuse, accidents, medical emergencies or invasive medical procedures, natural disasters, war, social unrest, loss and grief, and “cultural, intergenerational, and historical trauma” (The National Council for Behavioral Health, n.d.).
Living through a traumatic event is generally upsetting, but the same traumatic event can affect two people completely differently. One person may experience no lasting effects, while the other may develop Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), which requires a professional diagnosis. Symptoms of PTSD include: flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoiding people or places associated with the traumatic event, strong feelings of guilt or anger, and difficulty remembering details of the event (National Council for Mental Health, 2019). People whose symptoms aren’t severe enough for a diagnosis of PTSD may also suffer from lasting effects of trauma, including negative self-talk and low self-esteem (Rockville, 2014). Here are 6 harmful beliefs about trauma that can hurt our mental health:
1: Our Past Defines Us
It’s easy to compare your current self to the person you were before a traumatic event. If a traumatic event happened over a long period of time, like a war or an abusive relationship, it can be especially hard to separate your personality from the things you did to adapt during the traumatic event. But while this traumatic event will always be a part of your life story, you are not what happened to you. Spending too much time reliving your past limits your ability to heal, grow, and work towards your goals and dreams (Zetsche et. al., 2009).
2: Our Trauma Keeps Us Broken
Another common harmful belief is that our trauma makes and keeps us broken. This mentality is toxic because it devalues the parts of our identity outside of our trauma and equates trauma with brokenness, when it is really a normal reaction to an extremely stressful situation (Rockville, 2014). Although you will never be the person you were before you experienced the traumatic event, that doesn’t mean you will never heal. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to go through your healing journey alone; you can seek help from friends and family, support groups, or licensed therapists.
3: We Need to be Ashamed of Our Mistakes
After a traumatic event, it’s easy to replay our actions in our mind and blame the negative outcomes of a complex situation on our mistakes. And while we need to take accountability for our actions so we can learn from them, unhealthy rumination–worrying and obsessing over–our mistakes can lead to a fear of failure, avoidance behaviors, and even a slower recovery from PTSD or other traumatic effects (Zetsche et. al., 2009). So while guilt is a normal part of trauma response, it’s vital to remember we cannot change the past no matter how much we want to, and beating ourselves up over common mistakes can take a toll on our mental health. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s how we learn from and act on them in the future that matters.
4: Our Trauma/Mistakes Keep Others From Loving Us
Healing from trauma is emotionally exhausting. Things may trigger you unexpectedly, you may get frustrated with yourself, or you may feel worthless and struggle with self-confidence. And because the healing process isn’t a straight line, you will likely experience set backs and have days where it feels like you haven’t made any progress at all. All these experiences can make you feel like you are difficult to love, or like your significant other deserves someone who is unbroken by trauma. This mentality is harmful because it puts unattainable expectations on yourself that you need to be met before you can accept love, which may lead to trust issues and self-sabotaging in your relationships (Zurbriggen et. al., 2012).
5: What Has Happened to Us Dictates Our Future
There’s no denying that events from our past influence our present opportunities. Some paths may be closed off to you because of the traumatic events you’ve lived through. For example, if you are a refugee you may never be able to return home due to political or environmental climate factors. Mourning the future you could have had is part of the grieving process, and can be one step in healing from trauma (Volkan, 2017). But if you find yourself thinking that you can’t achieve something because of your trauma (not the effects of a traumatic event) you may be self-sabotaging your chances at the future you want.
6: Our Trauma Makes Us Less Worthy
Finally, thinking that current or past trauma makes us less worthy also harms our mental health. Living through traumatic experiences might leave you feeling like there is something wrong with you or your trauma is somehow your fault. During the healing process, it sometimes feels like you will never be whole again, and it can be easy to fall into unhealthy comparisons between yourself and other trauma survivors or people who have never experienced trauma. These thoughts are harmful because they base your self-worth on your past experiences and not your personal progress and intrinsic worth. Just because you are dealing with the effects of trauma does not mean you are undeserving of opportunities or have less to contribute than those who have never had a traumatic experience.
Traumatic experiences shape our lives and the lives of the people around us. Navigating trauma symptoms after a traumatic event is hard enough without mental health stigmas like the belief that trauma makes and keeps us broken. These harmful beliefs may prompt negative thoughts in trauma survivors that slow the healing process. If you have been through a traumatic event and are currently processing your emotions and trauma responses, know that you are not alone. Seeking help from a licensed mental health professional, support group, or other community are good options if you need support on your healing journey.
- The National Council for Behavioral Health (n.d.). How to manage trauma. Retrieved 11 Oct. 2020 from thenationalcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Trauma-infographic.pdf?daf=375ateTbd56.
- National Institute of Mental Health (2019, May). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved 11 Oct. 2020 from nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml.
- Rockville (2014). Chapter 3, Understanding the impact of trauma. In Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series (57). Retrieved 11 Oct. 2020 from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/.
- Volkan, V.D. (2017). Chapter 3: Newcomers linking objects, linking phenomena, and nostalgia. In Immigrants and refugees: Trauma, perennial mourning, prejudice, and border. London: Karnac Books.
- Zetsche, U., Ehring, T., & Ehlers, A. (2009). The effects of rumination on mood and intrusive memories after exposure to traumatic material: An experimental study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 40(4), 499–514. doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2009.07.001.
- Zurbriggen EL, Gobin RL, Kaehler LA (2012). Trauma, attachment, and intimate relationships. J Trauma Dissociation,13(2),127-33. DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2012.642762.