When we talk about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) we think of specific events: Combat, Rape, Assault, Fire, Car Accident, etc… However, there are 3 other types of events that occur daily, little by little, over a long period of time that are also traumatic and can lead to the development of PTSD in some people:
One night you make your partner’s favorite meal: steak. You go out of your way to get it just right and look forward with hope to see the smile on his face when he sees you remembered his favorite and nailed it. Dinner goes smoothly. He loved it and praised your excellent cooking skills. All is good. Two weeks later you decide to do the same thing. Surprise him with his favorite steak dinner. This time though, as soon as he realizes it he starts berating you for wasting money, steak is expensive! He blames you for all your financial troubles starting with buying steak! Then he berates your cooking: overdone, under seasoned, etc… You are no good, you’re stupid, you’re lucky he’s even with you! Uncertainty. You never know if what you do will please him or upset him. You and everyone else walk on eggshells around him. Life is an uncertain mess and because of that you are always on guard, always on alert, just waiting for something to go wrong. Another example: You bring your mother flowers. You’re trying to do something nice, she loves it! Her beautiful smile makes you feel warm inside. She praises you for being such a thoughtful child and prominently places the flowers in a vase in the living room. Wanting to please her again, the next week you do the same thing. Only this time she tosses them on the counter like trash. She yells at you for wasting money on something that dies and is worthless. Or she berates you for defacing public property if you picked them yourself. You’re stupid, you can’t do anything right, you should know better! Uncertainty. You try and try to make those around you happy but you’re always second guessing what you’re doing, you never know what the response will be. You never feel confident or secure. This type of uncertain environment is a traumatic experience. Of course a onetime event we can learn to get over. But when these are the people you care about the most, your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, romantic partners, etc… and these things are happening repeatedly for a prolonged amount of time, it becomes traumatic. It activates your survival system: fight, flight, or freeze. You are on guard, on alert, you can never relax, never truly trust what is going on around you. Your goal becomes to just survive. These are all hallmarks of trauma.
Your mom works 3 jobs just to keep your family alive. She loves you, you know that, but she has to always work. Your dad is either in the wind, or if he’s at home, he’s often drunk. You’re clothed, fed, have a roof over your head, and a good school to go to. That’s enough, right? But you have no one to turn to. No one is ever there to show you how to deal with hurt, sadness, or anger. No one is ever there to tell you they are proud of you or to celebrate small and big successes with you. You convince yourself you don’t need that. That stuff is for sissies, you’re strong and independent. Yet you still go out of your way to try to make your parents proud of you, but they’re either too busy or too drunk to notice. Your milestones don’t matter. You don’t matter. You’re invisible. Neglect. Life becomes simply surviving and going through the motions. There’s no point in reaching for self-actualization, meaning, or purpose; none of that matters because no one cares. No one cares about you. You are worthless. Another example: Your family has it all. Beautiful house, new cars, expensive vacations. Your friends tell you “You are so lucky!” and “Your parents are soo cool!” But you know better. You know that every conversation with your mother somehow becomes all about her. You go to her for love, support, or advice and she tells you that you are being too sensitive, and she then goes on to share how she had it worse. No matter what you share with her, she somehow had it worse, did it better, or went through more. Your dad, he loves you… you think…. you hope… but he is emotionally unavailable. He can’t express anything. You never see him angry. It makes you wonder if there is something wrong with you when you get angry. He never does anything, agree, disagree, yell, cry… Sometimes you wish you’d get a reaction out of him, any reaction, just to see that he is human. You wish he’d stand up for you in front of your mom. You wish he’d tell you he loves you and is sad to see you hurting, anything… something… But in your family, you just don’t talk about these things. You learn to push your emotions deep down, they just get in the way. Neglect. Only now you’ve also learned to neglect yourself. Your emotions don’t matter. What you’re feeling doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. Living a life worth living is a fairy-tale. You’re not worthy of that, you just need to go through the motions and survive. Overtime, this is a traumatic experience.
Your dad beat your mother. You grew up trying to protect her. Your siblings had physical and mental health issues. A lot of time was spent focusing on them. The family always struggled financially; you tried your best to contribute, even if it meant eating dinner at friends homes every night so your mom wouldn’t have to worry about feeding you. You were always moving. Perhaps your mother always had a different “friend” over for the week. Chaos. Growing up in an environment where you can never relax, never lay back and take it easy because it is all about survival and staying safe. Another example: You come from a large family. No one outright neglected you or kept you uncertain and always on your toes, but you got lost in the shuffle. Too many kids, too many school assignments, too many practices. You learn to be loud and speak up so you don’t get forgotten. Everything feels like a fight. You’re always fighting for attention, for your turn, for your dues. There is always an argument between someone in your family. Schedules are hectic, things get forgotten. Yelling is common. You either disappear into the chaos or you fight to stay on top. Chaos. You are in survival mode. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. You learn to always be ready to go… that is until you burn out. This too is traumatic.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that all three: Uncertainty, Neglect, and Chaos often go hand in hand, and they all fall under the umbrella of Emotional Abuse. Abusive relationships are traumatic, whether they’re physically or emotionally abusive, the impact on your life is the same: it negatively affects how you see yourself, others, and the world. It also means you missed out on opportunities to learn healthy ways of coping with emotions and stress as these were never modeled for you. You were left to do the best you could with the skills you had. But it is trauma nonetheless because it activated the survival system in your body. Your fight, flight, or freeze response. This survival system was designed to keep you alive when a lion was about to eat you in the jungle. But in our modern world it ends up keeping you wound up tightly. Never relaxing, always on guard, never trusting, always second guessing. This level of activation stresses out the body and leads to fatigue and burnout. So yes, maybe you were never in combat. But if you’ve had these types of traumatic experiences in your past you may benefit from learning more trauma, PTSD, and healthy coping skills.