When Pain Becomes Trauma 


When does pain become trauma?  Everyone experiences pain, stress, and heartache in their lives.  Not everyone, however, experiences trauma. The difference between pain and trauma is how someone heals after a difficult life event.  Even if you’ve experienced a serious threat to your life, health or emotional well-being, if you can cope with it, it may not be considered a trauma.

So, what puts people at risk for having a serious reaction to threatening situations?  Risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other unhelpful reactions to trauma increases with exposure to painful events.  When we ask about exposure to traumatic events, some people are surprised to realize that they may have had four or five or more stressful events happen in their lives.  Another thing that puts people at risk is long-term physical abuse, neglect, or emotional abuse. Sometimes it’s really hard to realize that loving parents might not have been willing or able to take care of their children in the way that they needed.  Finally, if a traumatic event shapes and changes the way you think about yourself, your future, and what you can expect from others and society you are at risk for developing emotional health difficulties rooted in trauma.

One thing that’s helpful when coping with trauma is to validate your experiences.  After trauma, people engage in something we think of as the ‘pain olympics.’ This is when you tell yourself ‘well xyz had it worse so I don’t deserve to feel as bad as I do’ or ‘I don’t know why I am reacting this way; it wasn’t so bad’.  While there is always someone who has it better or worse than you, this can be a really unhelpful way of judging yourself. You’re not crazy. Right after something bad happens, feeling numb or intense emotional ups and downs can be part of the healing process. Give yourself some time to feel badly; it’s normal to feeling angry, sad and fearful after something terrible happens and sitting with that gives your body a chance to recover.  Avoidance of these emotions actually works against you and makes it harder to work past an ordeal.

While it’s totally normal to respond to an ordeal while it’s occurring or shortly thereafter, if you’re still responding with the same intensity after several months, it can actually be a sign of something more severe, like PTSD.

Various forms of therapy, including Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Based Approaches and Cognitive Processing Therapy, have also been proven helpful for treating PTSD. Finding a provider you trust can be an pivotal part of your healing.  They will help you build coping skills to improve your everyday life and face parts of your past that have been bubbling into your daily life. While treatment cannot ‘undo’ past events, it can help you think about it in a more helpful way.