PTSD and the Danger of Downplaying Trauma
At least half of the population will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, such as death, severe injury, or sexual violence. While trauma can heal naturally over time, some people develop long-lasting distress that may be a sign of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With 12 million people suffering from PTSD each year, the language and support techniques we use are important to get right.
Reframing daily language
PTSD is not a quirky trait to describe regular moments or one-off behaviors. Flippant terms, such as those below, may make those with a trauma disorder feel isolated or unheard. To validate and support survivors, being mindful of our word choices is key.
People living with PTSD experience visceral reactions to triggers that throw them back into their lived traumas. “Triggered” is not a catchy way to describe common life events, such as running into an ex or eating at a restaurant that once caused food poisoning.
Some people may also use “triggered” to describe painful memories. While we never want to downplay experiences, there is a notable difference between a painful memory and being thrown back into a traumatic state that a person has no control over.
Instead of saying "that’s triggering,” try saying "I’m uncomfortable” or “I’m upset by the way a person, place, or thing makes me feel.”
During an essential time of awakening in our country, people are more open about their experiences. While this is an immense positive, the word “traumatizing” can be thrown out to mean that something is bothersome to an individual — such as a news story or losing an important basketball game.
While these examples can be upsetting, calling them traumatizing misuses a term that allows survivors to express when they are reminded of their trauma. When a person has had power and control taken from them, they are in a hyper-aware state of checking for danger or turning numb as a survival mechanism. If something traumatizes them, it can be a major setback to healing.
Instead of saying "that’s traumatizing,” try saying “that’s upsetting” or “that’s shocking."
“That gives me PTSD”
For survivors, the traumatic event will never be forgotten. The cause, whether it be a car accident, childhood abuse, war, or another horrifying situation, changed this individual’s life. A shirt reminding someone of a cringy middle-school picture is an unpleasant memory, not a trauma causing a psychological response.
Keep power in these vital words for PTSD survivors by carefully considering if an incident causes a typical emotional reaction or if it causes long-term distress.
Instead of saying "That gives me PTSD,” try saying “I’m stressed out” or “I don’t like that."
With such prevalence, it is likely we all know someone with PTSD. Taking time to understand what some survivors call a “hijacking” of the mind can help them process and move forward during a time when they feel isolated.
Make space for them to speak
When a loved one is open to sharing their experience, the first and most vital thing to do is listen. Allow them control of the conversation, letting them share as much as is comfortable for them and not pressing for more.
It is natural to want to jump into problem-solving, but your loved one needs time to express and be heard, so be present with them. Hold onto their pain with them as much as they are willing to let you, while being aware that healing takes time, and it may not always seem clear what to do or say next.
Providing space and time to sit with survivors, showing your availability and care for them, can stir hope where it otherwise feels hopeless.
Validate their experiences
Each person is unique in their response to trauma. There is no “right” way, so it is important to focus on their truth without inserting your expectations. They have been brave enough to tell their story. Assure them that what happened was not their fault, and their reaction is okay.
It may feel silly to say, “I can tell you’re in a lot of pain,” but the reassurance that you see and hear them can go a long way in feeling understood, even though you have not been through the same traumatic event.
Be willing to be there and help them piece together the complexity of their trauma. They may feel ashamed, weak, and unsure. Having a grounding, supportive force can help as they grapple with what they’ve experienced.
Encourage additional help (if needed)
If a loved one is not improving, it can be painful to watch. Trauma-informed care is available if you notice that a loved one is having a hard time functioning over a long period of time. Trauma experts can provide a higher level of care than a support system — and that does not mean you have done a bad job helping them on your own.
Communicate that you are still there with them every step of the way but share your concerns and ask if they would be open to discussing resources. Let them keep control of their actions but take the stress off by providing options for them to consider.
Supporting someone with PTSD can take a toll, and it does not make you a bad person if it feels overwhelming. These stories are hard to hear, and you are not giving up on your loved one by encouraging them to seek professional help. Rather, you are helping them reduce the impact of the trauma on their daily lives. They will never forget, but they can heal.
For those living with PTSD, being in social situations can bring significant challenges. When we validate and support trauma victims, we give them power back to live their experiences truthfully.
If you or a loved one experiences symptoms of an emotional trauma disorder, we want you to know that there is hope. Learn more about Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center’s trauma treatment programs.