Two people can experience the same distressing event, and one person can experience lasting symptoms of post-traumatic stress, while the other might have no long-term effects from the event. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 61% of men and 51% of women in the U.S. report being exposed to one or more traumatic events in their lifetime.
Trauma can be experienced as a one-time overwhelming event like a car accident or assault, or as a series of repeated distressing events over time, like childhood bullying. Nobody else can declare what is traumatic to a person except the person who experienced and/or witnessed it.
Because of trauma’s subjective nature, it is common for individuals who have experienced trauma to not seek help immediately following a traumatic event. This can be due to a plethora of reasons, some of which are the following:
1. Not Recognizing What Happened As Trauma
If you don’t recognize an experience as traumatic, it is unlikely that you will seek help for trauma recovery. Downplaying the effects of trauma can be an adaptive way to cope but can also delay the healing process. Once you acknowledge the effect the trauma had on you, recovery begins.
2. Having Difficulty Remembering Parts or All of What Happened (Dissociation)
Sometimes our brains will detach or dissociate from trauma as a way to protect us from it. This is an adaptive survival response that we have little control over. When this happens, it becomes particularly challenging to make sense of the trauma and/or seek help. A skilled trauma therapist will assess for dissociation in therapy and treat it concurrently.
3. Fear of Invalidation
People who have experienced trauma may not want to disclose information about their trauma to others due to fear of receiving invalidating responses. An invalidating response may sound like “Everything happens for a reason” or “You’re given nothing you can’t handle.”
4. Not Being Believed
Many trauma survivors have experienced at least one invalidating response from others ranging from an unhelpful platitude to being downright accused of lying. Because of this, it can be difficult for trauma survivors to feel confident in reaching out for support.
5. Shame Feelings of shame can begin to surface after experiencing trauma. Shame is when a person views themselves as damaged, broken or otherwise “bad.” Shame can cause trauma survivors to think they are unworthy of receiving help and be a barrier to reaching out for support.
6. Not Wanting to Re-experience What Happened
After experiencing a traumatic event, most people want to move on from it and forget about it. This makes good sense. As time goes on, however, trauma memories are likely to become “stuck” and replay in a person’s mind over and over again, causing lasting symptoms.
The pain that trauma survivors endure can feel isolating, leading many to try to cope without adequate support. Healing is done in the context of cultivating safe relationships with others. Reaching out for support is brave and is oftentimes a first step in the healing process.