How to Know if What You Went Through Was a ‘Trauma’
Updated: Apr 2
“What I went through isn’t as bad as what others have gone through, it doesn’t feel worthy of being called a ‘trauma’, but I can’t get it out of my head, I feel guilty for even being upset about this still when others have had it way worse…. but I still want it to go away, is that wrong of me?”
This thought process is not uncommon and comes up in my office often. People tend to feel like their experience isn’t worthy of being labeled as ‘traumatic’. The thought of considering that they may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from something doesn’t feel fair as they compare it what they imagine others have been through. If you can relate to this, if you have had similar thoughts, allow me to clarify….
You have the right to feel however you feel. Period.
If something happened to you, anything, and it bothers you… you have the right to feel better
If other people have been through ‘worse’, ok, that’s terrible that they’ve been through that but it does not take away from the pain you experience. It actually doesn’t really have anything to do with what you’re experiencing.
If you have flashbacks from a movie scene that you watched, let’s take care of that. Has someone had it worse? probably. Does that make those nightmares and images go away or become less painful for you? probably not.
Did hearing about a tragedy on the news impact you but then you felt guilty because you didn’t actually know the people involved and others ‘deserve’ therapy, but not you? If it’s upsetting to you then it’s upsetting to you, why not feel better if there is a way to do so.
Comparing your experiences to others and trying to feel grateful that it could have been worse, typically does not reduce the pain you feel, it just adds a layer of guilt and invalidation.
If you have seen something or been through something and it feels like it has ‘stuck’ with you, if you can’t get the images out of your mind, or the topic keeps invading your thoughts, let’s make that stop. Let’s set those thoughts aside that make you feel like your experience wasn’t ‘bad enough’ and simply get the help that can make it better. I don’t see anything wrong with ongoing self-improvement, so, when it comes down to it, nothing can really be too small of an experience to treat. If your life would feel better without a memory camping out in your brain then let’s take care of that.
Could it actually be ‘Trauma’ or PTSD?
Short answer: It’s very possible.
Longer answer: It may technically qualify for the diagnosis of PTSD, it may not, but how much does that truly matter when it comes down to it? There are techniques for reducing the most disturbing images and memories effectively so imagine what they can do for everything less than that.
Here are some things that are often considered to be called a traumatic event:
Have you ever…
been in a serious accident
been in a natural disaster (fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake, etc.)
had a life threatening illness (such as cancer, a heart attack, AIDS, etc.)
been raped or sexually assaulted
served in a war zone or been exposed to war-related causalities
been physically hit by/attacked by/injured by a stranger, family, or friend
been a victim of a crime
been in a relationship where your partner hit you or physically hurt you
been in a relationship where your partner emotionally manipulated and abused you
been in a situation where you were seriously injured or feared that you would be seriously injured or killed
someone made or pressured you into having some type of unwanted sexual contact
had a close family member die in a violent or unexpected way (car accident, shooting, etc.)
witnessed someone get seriously injured or killed or feared that they were going to get hurt or killed
had a friend or family member attempt or complete suicide
childhood: been physically punished or hurt by a parent/caretaker where you were very scared
childhood: been sexually molested
childhood: witnessed violence against a family member
childhood: witnessed community violence
childhood: having a parent be ‘out of the picture’ or in jail during childhood
Going through these experiences may or may not have lead to PTSD, however, if they didn’t get processed correctly then it’s likely that the images, feelings, and thoughts from those memories linger and still effect you today. If you didn’t get a good night sleep that night, if you didn’t have a strong support system at the time, if you weren’t believed, or there seems to be unspoken words or regrets of untaken actions then the odds of having effects from these experiences increase.
If nothing quite jumps out at you on that list or your mind is feeding you thoughts of second guessing the severity of your particular experience then you are who I’m writing to. This is where those thoughts of “well, what I went through wasn’t THAT bad” tend to creep in. Feel free to re-read the first portion of this article as a reminder that your feelings are valid and that you don’t have to minimize them. I shall continue on my mission to relieve some of that guilt layer, dispel the myth, and let you in on some of the less discussed things that people go through that can also be traumatic. These experiences can have lasting effects as they rattle around, unresolved, in your brain.
As you read this list, I challenge you to set the stage of noticing not what your thoughts are in response to each item but notice how your body feels. Your mind may jump to minimizing them automatically, but your gut may have something else to say, let’s listen to it.
Have you ever…
been in any type of accident (not just one that someone would label as ‘serious’)
almost been in a car accident, perhaps with your kids in the car, and the image of what could have happened plays in your mind
seen a scary or disturbing movie scene at a young age… or at any age that you can’t seem to shake
had someone touch you in a way you didn’t want to be touched or say something sexual that you didn’t feel comfortable with
not been sure if what you went through is considered rape or assault but it doesn’t feel good to think about
felt like a sexual encounter wasn’t entirely consensual but felt confused about it
been in a physical fight with someone, been beat up by someone, or hurt someone and feel bad about it now
been held up at gunpoint or even not at gunpoint, and felt threatened and scared
had someone break into your house and feel violated and scared afterward
committed a crime that you feel guilty about now
been a first responder or witness to a crime scene or accident
tried to save someone’s life
been in a relationship where your partner would manipulate you and emotionally abuse you (belittle you, make you feel that you are nothing without them, tell you you’re worthless, etc.)
had sex with your partner/husband/wife when you didn’t really want to, when it went against your gut
known someone who died and their death effected you (could even be someone you don’t know but the way they died stuck with you)
been cheated on or you cheated on someone
were harmfully rejected by someone you were interested in
been fired by a job that you highly valued as part of your identity
received a frightening medical diagnosis, went through an illness, or watched someone go through an illness
childhood: been bullied or bullied someone
childhood: been exposed to sexually inappropriate things
childhood: been ignored by a parent, felt like you don’t matter, felt like you weren’t accepted by your family, felt unwanted, been told things that made you feel worthless
childhood: been separated from a parent and it was scary (had a parent forget to pick you up from somewhere, got lost somewhere, left alone in the house, etc.)
childhood: received confusing or belittling religious messages
childhood: been embarrassed in front of your classmates in school
childhood: been under high pressure to get good grades or excel at a sport, to be ‘the best’, been scolded for getting a bad grade
pre-childhood: were born in a distressing way (e.g. cord wrapped around neck, not breathing when born, etc.), were separated from mom for a long time after birth (anytime during infancy), or were sick in the hospital as an infant.
pre-childhood: have knowledge or suspicions that your biological mother did not want a child when she was pregnant with you and/or you were conceived in less-than-ideal conditions. (that feeling of not feeling wanted can last through a lifetime until addressed)
If you connected to any of these and feel that it is still impacting you behind the scenes, you are not alone. These are all terrible things to go through, they’re just not talked about quite as much. The list could obviously go on, as people’s lives are oh so very different and unpredictable. If you would like to learn more about why these things, from potentially long ago, still affect you, my article on Getting Over Trauma can help. To learn more about how I can help get these things out of your mind once and for all, I recommend browsing my counseling page that clarifies more about Trauma/PTSD, EMDR, and answers some of your general questions. I’m ready to provide you a sense of relief as soon as you are, so if you feel you’re ready to start this next, lighter, chapter of your life feel free to go ahead and get something scheduled on the books and let’s get started.