by: Jonathan Pishner
When people think about trauma, they usually think about “survival” trauma; the car crashes, assaults, war trauma, abuse, etc. These survival situations get locked into our brain, which becomes what we familiarly think about in regards to surviving trauma.
What we now know is this: Survival traumas are not the only type of trauma.
Another common type of trauma is a “wear and tear” trauma. This trauma hides much more easily, because most people don’t know it’s trauma. In fact, most people are ashamed that their Wear and Tear Trauma affects them so deeply.
That’s because these traumas are not composed of a single large event. The Wear and Tear Trauma comes about from numerous minor events, repeated over time.
When Little Events Become a Big Deal
“I shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it.” This is a common phrase when someone has a Wear and Tear Trauma.
It’s understandable why you might think this way. You might look at a set of events that you can’t shake, and think “that was so small, this shouldn’t be a big deal.”
The truth is that small negative events that happen once are no big deal.
Small negative events that happen daily over the course of months or years tend to become trauma.
Here’s a common example.
Let’s say that you and your partner are not getting along. You argue and fight, and you’re constantly irritated with each other. If this happens for a day, or even a week, most couples will get over it and move on.
However, if you are fighting and bickering daily over the course of months or years, that’s a completely different situation. We tend to not think of these experiences as trauma because we don’t think of those things as sufficiently “bad enough” on a day-to-day basis in order to be traumatic.
But let’s fast forward a few months and look at how this usually plays out.
Imagine for a moment that the bickering and tension last for months. It gets so that you never want to go home. You start getting agitated before you even walk in the door. You can almost feel the fight/flight response beginning, and you’re rehearsing your words in your head before you even touch the doorknob. You begin selecting your words with great care, trying not to start the fight that you know is going to happen anyway.
This is an experience that can actually become traumatic. Your brain has now turned going home (which should be your safest place) into a survival situation. You start getting a minor adrenalin response each time you’re about to walk in the door. Your muscles are tense, you’ve built up cortisol (stress response hormone) in every cell, and you know you’ll spend the next 12 hours either fighting or walking on eggshells, just waiting for the relief of returning to work.
Is it any wonder that this can turn into trauma?
Common Wear and Tear Traumas
The two most common types of “wear and tear” trauma that I treat are the negative/abusive love relationship, and the negative job experience.
With a negative love relationship, it sometimes involves emotional or verbal abuse, but it doesn’t have to. Just because there’s no overt abuse doesn’t mean the relationship can’t be tense, irritating, depressing, or otherwise bad.
If you have had to leave a negative love relationship, in many cases the “wear and tear” trauma has to be treated before you can relax a new, hopefully more positive relationship.
In the same way, a negative job experience can become a wear and tear trauma. This usually happens when you get locked into a bad environment and can’t leave because you need the money.
When you have to go somewhere you hate every single day, and it’s repeated over a long period of time, that stress often builds up and reaches the level of a trauma.
When that happens, even if a person is now in a great job, they will still have a ton of anxiety or always have a feeling that there is some catastrophe around the corner. It isn’t because this job does that, but because it is carried over from the previous employment disaster.
These aren’t the only two Wear and Tear Traumas. Several others that we’ve worked with are:
Tense or abusive families, especially if you’re the parent dealing with an angry or abusive child
Non-war military traumas (sitting around waiting for a deployment that never comes)
Spouses whose partner is in a dangerous profession
How can I tell if I have a Wear and Tear Trauma?
One of the unfortunate thought patterns that people get caught up in is “Well it wasn’t bad enough to traumatic”, so it gets brushed aside or thrown under the rug.
In many cases, they are right that it wasn’t a survival trauma, but the long term effect can be just the same. They can get caught in not wanting to label their negative experience as trauma because it can make them feel weak if they say “I had a bad job and it was traumatic, or this girl I dated was traumatic.”
Here are two easy questions to answer if you want to know if you have a Wear and Tear Trauma:
Am I currently in a good situation (job, family, love relationships, etc)?
Am I feeling like it’s going to suddenly turn awful?
If you answer yes to both questions, there is a chance that Wear and Tear Trauma is present.
Am I Just Weak?
Brain mechanics work the way they work. It doesn’t make someone weak when the brain does the thing that it’s designed to do.
The reality is that the brain is a mechanism of association.
When a negative experiences are repeated over and over, the brain locks in the association without that person’s consent. It doesn’t matter how mild or severe the experiences were.
What decides whether an experience is traumatic isn’t necessarily how severe it was, but whether or not the experience gets locked into the brain.
What can I do to help myself?
Well, you’re on a counseling website, so of course I’m going to suggest working with a counselor.
But, if you’d like to try something else first, there are a number of practices that have been shown to be helpful with Trauma:
Mindfulness practice – This vast collection of practices are a way to train the brain to be in the present instead of the past. Almost anything can be a mindfulness practice, but most people think of meditation practices when they think of mindfulness. Meditation is one of many mindfulness practices.
Yoga – There are a number of studies that suggest yoga helps with trauma, and this has even led to a specialty called Trauma-informed Yoga. Yoga, and similar gentle body practices, are a nice middle-ground between mindfulness practice and bodywork.
Massage – It is absolutely true that the body tends to hang on to trauma. Working directly on the body through massage and similar bodywork practices has been shown to help people control trauma-related symptoms.
Any of these methods can be used by themselves, combined with each other, or combined with counseling work in order to help a person live in the present instead of the past.
Remember, having a Wear and Tear Trauma is not weakness. It’s your brain doing what it’s designed to do, and doing it too well.
However you choose to work with your situation, the important thing is finding a way for your brain to put aside the past and live in the present. Remember, just because there wasn’t some terrible survival situation, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t trauma.
If you need more help on working with events in the past, contact one of our trauma therapists, and we’d be glad to give you some guidance.