Over the past several decades more people have been talking about trauma than ever before. We know this from the sheer number of articles and books published about the topic—evident in the substantial spike of English language books containing mentions of the word.
To date there are over 5,500 podcasts whose title contains “trauma.” Social media engagement (likes, shares, reactions) ranks in the hundreds of thousands for posts containing the word “trauma.” The term has skyrocketed in popularity as a Google search term over the past two decades. And the TikTok hashtag #Trauma alone has over 6.2 billion views.
Despite its increasing popularity as a topic, however, many people still hold some serious misconceptions about what trauma actually is. Here are five of the most pervasive myths about trauma—and what research has to say about them.
Myth: Trauma is a one-off, horrific event that changes you forever
An isolated event that severely violates a person’s physical and psychological safety can significantly alter that person’s mental (and physical) health. But trauma isn’t always a distinct and horrifying event. Many people’s experiences of trauma are chronic (think: growing up in a chaotic living situation or being repeatedly exposed to domestic violence, residing in a community with high crime rates, or experiencing emotional neglect throughout childhood). Trauma can also result from social and systemic factors, like poverty and racism. Additionally, some research suggests that trauma can be transmitted intergenerationally—from parents to offspring, possibly through mechanisms that influence how DNA is expressed. Trauma is not, therefore, always one single event that changes you forever. It can manifest in different ways for different people, with vastly different outcomes and effects.
Myth: Trauma always leads to PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating outcome of exposure to trauma(s) that entails intrusive and distressing memories of the traumatic event(s), avoidance of things associated with the traumatic event(s), impairments in memory and distorted thoughts or beliefs about one’s self or others (think: “I’m a bad person” or “Safety in this world is an illusion; everyone will hurt you if given the chance”). Persistently depressed or agitated mood states, feeling keyed up or on edge, and not being able to sleep or concentrate are other hallmarks of PTSD. So too is engaging in reckless or self-harming behavior.
Research tells us, however, that only a small proportion of people exposed to traumatic events (including the unexpected death of a loved one, violence, sexual assault, natural disasters, or vehicular accidents) go on to develop PTSD. In fact, it’s estimated that just around six to eight percent of the population experiences PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives. While we should never discount the severity of PTSD and its risk factors, it’s important to keep in mind that experiencing a trauma does not always lead to PTSD.
Myth: Trauma is always a disorder
Experiencing trauma can lead to or exacerbate a range of emotional, behavioral and physical health issues. Disorders other than PTSD can result from exposure to trauma—including acute stress disorder, whose symptoms mirror those of PTSD but typically arise immediately after trauma exposure and last up to one month; some personality disorders; eating disorders; anxiety, and depression. But this isn’t always the case. Many factors influence whether and how someone recovers from traumatic events, including their age at the time of the trauma, their personal coping skills and access to resources, what supports they have in place around the time(s) the trauma occurs, and whether they can access timely and effective interventions (like psychotherapy) that promote recovery.
Approximately half of all people exposed to trauma actually go on to experience “post traumatic growth”—a transformative and positive psychological experience in the wake of adversity that protects people from trauma’s negative effects. So while traumatic events can be life-altering or effect significant and long-lasting changes in one’s emotional and behavioral health, this isn’t the case for everyone exposed to trauma—nor true of every traumatic experience.
Myth: Trauma has to happen to you directly
You don’t have to be directly experience one or more traumatic incidents yourself in order to be negatively affected by them. “Vicarious trauma” (also known as “secondary trauma”) refers to a profound shift in one’s worldview and sense of safety resulting from repeated exposures to other people’s trauma—say, by witnessing the aftermath of a disaster or hearing about vivid details of someone else’s trauma. Mental health professionals, health care professionals, emergency responders as well as clergy members who minister to people suffering from trauma’s long reaching effects are at higher risk of vicarious trauma than the general public.
Myth: Trauma changes your brain forever
Experiencing trauma can alter our nervous system’s threat detection capacities, keeping us constantly on edge and on high alert for danger. But there’s evidence that our brains remain “plastic” (that is: changeable) well into the latter years of our life. Effective interventions for trauma—including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), modified versions of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)--have each been shown to change neural activity, bringing about the positive emotional and behavioral changes observed in those who recover from trauma-related disorders.
Not all experiences of trauma lead to disorders and no two people’s responses to trauma are exactly the same. But even if your unique trauma response doesn't meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition, that doesn't mean you don't need support processing and healing from whatever has happened to you. And if your experience(s) of trauma have led to debilitating outcomes? All the more reason to reach out for help.
There’s a great deal of evidence that recovery from trauma of all kinds is very real and very possible—a reality that myths about trauma tend to obscure. What happened to you doesn’t need to keep you a prisoner forever. You can and deserve to feel okay again. Trauma recovery involves learning how to feel at peace in your skin again, developing trusting relationships with others, and making sense of and extracting meaning from your past so that it stops hijacking your present.
With the right kind of support many trauma survivors are able to rekindle a sense of physical and emotional safety, foster healthy and stable connections, and learn how to regulate the intense and overwhelming emotions resulting from prio adversity. All of this helps bring you back to the person you truly are or want to be, unfettered by the painful consequences of what others may have done to you or what you may have witnessed and experienced throughout your life.
If you feel ready to take the step of reaching out to a therapist for support healing from one or more traumatic experiences, we’re here to help. Here’s to making healing from trauma even more trendy than the often misconstrued term itself.
Katherine Cullen, MFA, LMSW, is a psychotherapist and writer based in New York City. Her work has been featured by Psychology Today, where she was previously an editor, Time, Cosmopolitan, Shape, Weight Watchers Magazine, Rehabs.com, mindbodygreen.com, PsychCentral.com, and Greatist.com. She has also appeared on ABC Nightline, NY1 News, and CBS.