Different kinds of trauma

Most research into trauma is based on male experiences – especially the experiences of male soldiers. It focuses on the idea that you have experienced a single, or a small number of traumatic things and that healing comes from contextualising it and de-normalising it. The expectation of flashbacks to specific events as a PTSD response comes with this sort of trauma.

Of course not all trauma takes this shape. If you grew up neglected, or in an emotionally abusive family, there may not be any big events you can point at. Racial abuse can often take the form of relentless microaggressions – any one alone doesn’t look like much, but added together they become traumatic. Gaslighting depends on attrition, not big events. Economic abuse tends to be a long term project. Workplace bullying can be insidious and long term. People emerge from these situations traumatised and also not fitting the traditional model we have for dealing with event based trauma.

Then there’s the intersections – to be traumatised by living as a neurodiverse person while also having to deal with racism and economic abuse. To suffer medical trauma because of your sexual identity and also having to deal with workplace bullying and one instance of being beaten up… People can have multiple trauma sources and those interact with each other and impact on how, and if you might be going to heal.

I’ve experienced event-based trauma and the kinds of invasive thoughts and flashbacks that go with it. I’ve also experienced the kind of trauma that is built of smaller things over longer timeframes. Being triggered around that is qualitatively really different and much harder to spot. If you’re back in the trenches with the shellfire, then afterwards you have a pretty good idea what just happened. If you’re back in the hideous miasma of an awful childhood, or a toxic workplace or an abusive relationship, that mist can settle over you without it being obvious what’s happened.

With that kind of triggering, you can end up thinking, feeling and reacting as though you were back in hell. It can make the current situation look like the previous one. All the coping mechanisms come out – but they won’t be relevant or helpful if you aren’t in the same situation. They may even harm you. Everything is incredibly confusing and disorientating and you may feel as though you have gone entirely mad.

Getting help for complex trauma is much more complicated. Finding an expert who understands the layers of things you may be dealing with isn’t easy. Even recognising that you’ve got complex trauma impacting on you can be hard because when it isn’t event based, it plays out so much more subtly.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Different kinds of trauma

  • druidcat

    I keep having the following exchange with my therapist:

    Me: *describes past situation*
    Her: Oh my goodness, that sounds awful! *genuine shock*
    Me: Oh. Yes. I suppose it is, but it was normal for me.

    It’s difficult to call a halt to what is normalised; it takes an outsider going ‘wow, NO!’ to stop an exacerbating trauma situation. And then reframing of that in your own head. Not easy at all.

  • Haven

    Ooft, very much yes. I’m very slowly making my way through ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ by Bessel Van Der Kolk and it’s hard going but validates this experience of trauma. All I can focus on is one small step at a time and recovery not being linear.

    Forgiving myself for having coping mechanisms that aren’t optimal is key. Like, no that wasn’t maybe an ideal way to react, but I’m still here and I’m grateful that I came up with a way to make sure that’s the case and also that no-one else is harmed. It’s so fricken complicated.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    My reaction to trauma is to forget large portions my life, literally decades. Same reason why I doubt I will ever have any interest in finding out about any past lives.

  • toomajj

    Thanks for this very interesting post! As someone in their 40s, I never considered myself having traumatic experiences in my life, certainly no obvious traumatic events. But stepping into the path of spiritual development, I realized how much I am held back because of complexes of small traumas that a part of my shoved down into the dungeon of my unconscious because “they were not good enough.” But these can even be more fatal because they tend to hide under the title “insignificant.” But once they reach critical mass, they can perhaps make us suffer with similar intensity as event-based traumas. I am trying to be more open to them and give more compassion than neglect I have given them for all these years.
    Thank you for addressing this issues.

    • Nimue Brown

      I wish you all the best in this journey, it’s not easy to deal with. The way in which small traumas in large quantities can go unnoticed and become normal and just the way the world works makes them really hard to tackle, but if you can see them you’re through the most challenging bit.

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