You don’t need to meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis to be affected by trauma.
I've heard a lot of clients share experiences with me and then say: "Do you think that qualifies as something traumatic?" or "I don't have flashbacks and nightmares- it must not have been that bad".
What creates trauma-responses is not about the content of the experience- it is about the way our brains and bodies make sense of that experience.
Just because you may not meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, you may still experience changes to your nervous system due to exposure to trauma.
Trauma is an event that overwhelms the nervous system:
Trauma happens when your nervous system is unable to cope with the situation in order to restore a sense of safety and calm once the experience is over.
It is an experience that is “too much” for your mind to process. When the event is over, your body continues to relive it. Because it is not integrated, it keeps showing up. This may look like (but is not limited to) flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, body sensations, dissociative experiences, etc.
Trauma is a subjective experience:
What may traumatize one person, may not traumatize the next. Trauma is not what happens to a person but how they perceive and respond.
It can be life-threatening, but it doesn’t have to be–it could be a car crash or assault, witnessing or being subject to violence or abuse, or even growing up in a dysfunctional family where children are regularly mistreated by parents or other caregivers.
There are many factors which influence how a person will perceive and event or experience.
Earlier life experiences
Relationships with others
and so much more, can all contribute to how a person will respond to an event.
Trauma is not defined by the event or experience itself:
Trauma affects the way you remember and react to things that remind you of the event.
Often times after experiencing something that was "too much", "too soon" or even "not enough", we may develop thoughts such as: "I am not safe", "I am in danger", "I did not do the right thing", etc.
That’s why seemingly "non associated" experiences, words, smells, sights, sounds–or even feelings inside your own body can trigger reactions that seem out of proportion to the triggering event.
Trauma changes our brains:
Trauma causes the brain to rewire itself. Traumatic events cause emotional and physical changes in the brain, including disrupting the way different parts of your brain communicate with each other. This leads to a tendency to feel fear even when there’s no danger, a heightened startle response, memories that intrude on your awareness against your will (such as flashbacks or nightmares), and more.
Your experience is unique to you, and what matters most is that you deserve to get support.
It can be difficult to reach out when the people around you don’t seem to understand, or they minimize your experience.
It may also be challenging to seek help when you feel like you shouldn’t be affected by what happened.
However, not everyone responds in the same way, and there is no "cookie cutter" way that trauma needs to look. You don't need to compare your experience or symptoms to someone else's for it to be acknowledged.
The good news is that our brains can rewire and heal, just like our bodies do!
You don't have to go through the lingering effects of earlier experiences alone.
Treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have proven effective in helping to reduce the distress and related symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event.
Find a trauma-informed therapist to work with who can tailor your treatment to your specific needs.
Annabella Lipson is a Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living. She enjoys working with young adults and adults dealing with trauma, stress, anxiety and other behavioral challenges.
Annabella incorporates a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness practices with her clients.