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Why SOME Experiences are Traumatic (And Others Aren't)

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Why SOME Experiences are Traumatic (And Others Aren't)

Will Bratt


Everyone goes through difficult times, but not everyone experiences trauma. In this video, I explain why some experiences are traumatic and others aren’t. So keep watching to learn why!

Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives.

We’re therapists who do regular videos on mental wellness, and give practical ideas and tips to make your life happier and more fulfilling – so hit the subscribe button to keep in the loop!

It’s no mystery that human beings are a diverse lot, and that’s made abundantly clear by the phenomenon of trauma. Two people can be side-by-side experiencing the same adverse event, and one can find it distressing while the other finds it traumatic. So why is that?

In this video I’ll be casting light on things that make it more likely for an experience to be traumatic.

In our last video, “Why You Can’t Just ‘Get Over’ Past Trauma”, I laid out what it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about trauma. I put a link in the description, so if you haven’t watched that video yet, make sure to check it out. Among other things, in that video I explain that a trauma response is something we have when we’ve experienced something overwhelmingly distressing, often of a terrifying nature. It’s how we respond to the worst of the worst kinds of events and experiences.

Now, an important nuance is that there are no set experiences that are inherently traumatic in themselves. But if it’s not the event itself that dictates whether an experience is traumatic, then what does? Well, let’s dive into that!

1.    First off, the nature of the event itself does tie in to whether or not you’re likely to experience it as traumatic. What I mean here is that there are certain kinds of events that most people are likely to experience as overwhelmingly distressing. Events like natural disasters, motor vehicle accidents, large scale acts of violence or terrorism, as well as interpersonal violence and persistent abuse and mistreatment, are all commonly associated with trauma responses – especially if they could or do result in loss of life. This doesn’t mean that you absolutely will experience any one of these kinds of events as traumatic, but these do tend to be the kinds of things that people find to be traumatic – more so than, say, a nearly averted car accident, or an assault that you were able to stop or get away from.

2.    Another factor that can make it more likely for an adverse experience to be traumatic is if it’s interpersonal in nature. While it’s absolutely true that a natural disaster or accident can be traumatic, there is something about intentional interpersonal violence or abuse that most people find to be far more distressing. This makes sense, as intentional harm generally requires someone to make a decision to hurt others, whereas natural disasters or accidents are more random and not born out of an intent to harm. A lot of people find it easier to accept that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, as opposed to being a chosen victim of someone else’s malicious intent.

3.    The degree of control you have within a distressing event also ties in to whether you’re likely to experience it as traumatic. Generally speaking, the more free will you’re able to exercise, the more likely it is that you can mitigate the harm done to yourself or the others involved. In other words, the more you’re able to effectively resist, the less profoundly you’re likely to feel traumatic distress in the aftermath.

4.    Social responses are a factor that often gets overlooked when talking about trauma, but are absolutely relevant when it comes to the degree to which you feel post-traumatic distress. If you experience any kind of overwhelming event – whether it’s interpersonal violence or abuse, or an accident or natural disaster – and you receive positive, helpful, just social responses, you’re likely to feel more ok when it’s all said and done. If, on the other hand, you receive negative, blaming, shaming, ineffective, or harmful responses from others, you’re more likely to struggle down the road. The reason for this is pretty simple, and it all comes down to safety. Overwhelming events disrupt our sense of safety in our lives or in the world, and helpful social responses serve to restore our sense of wellbeing. On the flip side, negative social responses reinforce our sense of unsafety and understandably make it hard to feel at ease in our lives.

5.    Your values and the meaning you attribute to an adverse experience or event also plays in to why you might find it to be traumatic. This factor is a lot more complex and nuanced than I can illustrate in this video. There’s a wide spectrum of things that contribute to the meaning we make of an experience, including some of the factors I’ve already mentioned in this video. But at the risk of oversimplifying this one, I will say that how you make sense of an event relates to the emotional response you have to it.

6.    This connects closely to another factor, which is your level of sensitivity to the particular kind of adverse experience. Someone who is gradually desensitized to adverse content or experiences would likely find it less difficult to accept and move on from the same experience that someone with less exposure to that kind of content might. For example, a veteran paramedic might be unsettled, but otherwise ok after witnessing the aftermath of a tragic accident, while a more junior paramedic could really struggle.

7.    The second last factor that plays into why some experiences are traumatic while others aren’t is the intensity and duration of the experience. If you think that the more intense an adverse event is, the more likely it is that someone will find it traumatizing, you’re absolutely right. Of course, while all potentially traumatic experiences are unique in their own right, it’s probably fair to say that it would be more traumatizing to be held hostage in a bank robbery where the robbers are brutal, ruthless, and violent, versus one in which the robbers are calm, considerate, and kind – as far as bank robbers go. Similarly, it’s generally assumed that adversity, like abuse, that happens once or twice and never again, is likely to be less traumatizing than repeated violations over a longer period of time. Of course, there are other contextual factors that can contribute to how we respond to these kinds of experiences, but less is generally easier to handle than more.

8.    Finally, the last factor that can make a difference in terms of whether an experience is traumatic or not is the age at which it happened. We generally implicitly know this to be true, but children are often more vulnerable than adults. This ties in to a couple of the factors already mentioned in this video, like our sensitivity to a kind of adversity, and our capacity to control what happens. This is clear by how we, as adults, often respond to children who are in the presence of graphic or violent content by shielding their eyes. I remember being a little kid and seeing violent movies that were not appropriate for someone my age, and feeling really scared for some time after. Now, years later, I can watch movies or TV shows with graphic violence and feel somewhat unsettled, but more or less ok. While this may not exactly be an example of trauma, the analogy still fits. Because of the tendency for children to be more sensitive and vulnerable to adversity than adults, it can be more likely that a younger person will find an overwhelmingly adverse experience to be traumatizing.

So there are several reasons why some experiences are traumatic and others aren’t. It’s a real mix of both individual and contextual factors.

Now I’m wondering if there are any that you can think of that weren’t included in this video. Or even if there are some factors that were mentioned that you hadn’t thought of before. We’d love to hear from you, so make sure to leave a comment down below, and be part of the Heart & Oak community!

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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!