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Why the Term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” Is Disempowering

It risks pathologizing the nervous system's adaptation for survival.

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obtained from the Washington Post.
obtained from the Washington Post.

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“Now my inner life makes me interpret a simple mistake, a misunderstanding, as catastrophe… it’s not a disordered reaction to trauma- it’s a common and natural one… I assumed my collapse meant I was deeply flawed. I wish I knew that I wasn’t a damaged person, I was suffering the fallout of an interrupted life.”

Edith Eva Eger, The Choice

Edith Eva Eger is a best-selling author, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor. Her trauma is one that many would consider the worst you could experience, but she has remarkably healed and gone on to successfully help and inspire others by rejecting the notion that she was a victim, that she was broken. Reactions to traumatic experiences are highly variable, based on social stressors, environmental stressors, and genetic influences. The cultural reaction to victims of trauma, however, often falls somewhere in the line between pity and compassion (which differs from empathy).

Cultural stigmatization along with toxic shame regarding the event (or events) serve as implicit yet tremendous barriers to healing. When the traumatic event is interpreted in a way that becomes part of the “victim”‘s identity, it can be a difficult experience to let go of and move on from. That is not to say that one must move on from the traumatic event and discard how it has shaped them, but being able to integrate the trauma response as an experience, rather than creating a belief around it — I am unlovable, I am unworthy, I am unsafe — is a key shift from perpetual victimhood to healing. Beginning to make sense of a traumatic event is powerful in that it provides context and basis for understanding the conditions that give rise to a prolonged stress (fear) response that may or may not manifest in what clinicians classify as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Instead of labelling victims of trauma, Peter Levine, research and founder of a therapy coined “Somatic Experiencing,” gives language to the reframing necessary to take the power back from the perpetrator. Traumatic events are no longer imprinted as something that happened “to” someone, but rather events that elicited a high emotional charge that the body was unable to metabolize in the moment, and so the body adapted to such an overwhelm to the system in a way that would protect the individual at that time when they were directly under threat.

A graph depicting the nervous system following a traumatic event; obtained from Frontiers in Psychology, “Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy.”

The issue that arises is that this response to such an emotional charge becomes programmed in the nervous system which albeit, is protective when under threat, is distressing and disorienting in everyday life. Levine’s technique focuses on bottom up processes (beginning with the body rather than the brain) to dissipate this high emotional charge being stored in the body and to integrate the experience into the nervous system. A major part of this process is acknowledging the suffering that is being faced and meeting it with curiosity, awareness and safety. This requires a keen development of interoception, compassion, and self-regulation — all skills that can be developed with the help of a practitioner who is trained in mindfulness based techniques.  

Viewing things from the lens of the past, the nervous system makes predictions about the future and protects us in the way it knows how. The fight or flight response that is triggered in the body begins psychologically and sets off a chain physiological events that occur below the individual level of consciousness. Because this response happens before we are consciously aware of it, we cannot simply try to break down and intellectually understand the experience and heal through traditional cognitive therapies, but instead must experience and embody the safety our body is yearning for. It doesn’t matter how much one mentally understands that we are safe and not in a life threatening situation, because the unconscious part of our brain will remain stuck in one moment in time unless it is shown otherwise.

Experiencing trauma does not mean someone is doomed to struggle with it for the rest of their life, and it also doesn’t mean it won’t be something that has shaped them long after to event. It can seem like a daunting task to begin the healing process, and it doesn’t help to be smacked with the label of having a mental disorder. So why not call it “post-traumatic stress,” the normal and, in fact, incredibly intelligent response to a threat? The weight of a diagnosis in our current society is that of a sentencing: “What do I have? What’s wrong with me?” It is necessary to understand the fallout from trauma as an adaptation to keep the brain and body safe (and in many ways all mental disorders can be viewed as coping mechanisms). When we can understand and use this story as a way to mobilize our resources and knowledge for transformation, we discover the infinite power we hold within us to heal.  

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More Thrive on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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