To Your Health


Chad Beaver

Defining trauma

At a recent conference discussing changes in the mental health field, the topic of trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) came up. What qualifies as trauma has changed significantly in the current version of the diagnosis. In what used to be "being involved or witnessing" an experience that is life threatening, we now include "having heard" about trauma as justification for the diagnosis.

This change is very important and opens the door to more people to qualify for treatment for a serious disease, but there are concerns about diluting the diagnosis by allowing someone who merely watched the news or played violent video games to be diagnosed with a mental health problem. However, there was a clear distinction made about the control we have over these activities: By simply turning off the device, we no longer expose ourselves to the experience.

In the simple question of "should I pay attention to this?" is the distinguishing point for trauma. If by turning off the television you are no longer exposed to the offense, then it is not justification for PTSD. If you watched the planes fly into the towers 100 times, sure, it was traumatic but this was a choice and could have been stopped with the push of a button.

More important questions are: Why do we choose to expose ourselves to these images? Why do we fantasize about being in horrific situations or play war games? Why do we slow down at accidents trying to see carnage?

We delve into those worlds of darkness as a way to appreciate the light in our lives.

At the conference, we discussed the concepts of internal versus external locus of control and how this affects our recovery from trauma. This means that if we believe our destiny is set, we often question "why me?" longer than people who believe their destiny is in their hands. However, the way the presenter stated this was, "If you believe in God, it is harder to recover from trauma."

This statement reflects some fallacies in logic and faith that were surprising to me. I understand that many people of faith read the stories of horror and famine in holy books and even picture themselves surviving along with the characters they read about. They can gain strength from these stories and there are great morals. However, when tested and put through a true trauma, often they say, "I’m a good person; why would God do this to me?" and they get stuck trying to justify why they were exposed to some heinous act.

While this is a valid point and a situation I have seen many times, there is a fallacy of faith in this mindset. In questioning God, we often miss many morals and lessons of our own life. Changing this external locus to an internal locus requires a change in mindset. Instead of asking "why me?" try asking, "I survived a situation that many could not; what did I learn?"

Conversely, this same reaction can become the same trap for someone with an internal locus of control; they may believe they are in control of their lives and yet some trauma occurred. They find themselves questioning their own abilities and again fail to learn from their experiences.

This is how therapy helps. By examining our experiences in an objective manner, we absorb their lessons.

That is the key to overcoming trauma.