When trauma is ignored or labelled

Peter Levine (Clinical Psychologist) states thatTrauma is the most avoided, ignored, denied, misunderstood and untreated cause of human suffering.”

Trauma being ignored can be traced back to Freud Sigmund (psychologist) who changed his theory to hysteria and false memories because his original work that exposed the trauma of sexual abuse experienced by many of his patients was at the time not received well because the world did not want to believe that incest was real. Therefore, trauma got ignored and covered up. An example of many how in the world, society, culture, trauma is ignored, and survivors are silenced.

Janina Fisher, PhD
 (Psychologist) talks about the legacy of trauma, by legacy she means the natural responses that trauma leaves survivors with, the healing of these trauma symptoms. It is the legacy itself of trauma that is not only ignored in general by society and individuals in it but also in the professional fields that should be supporting those who are traumatised. Psychiatry has had a history of treating people, by seeing them as just symptoms and not recognising the symptomology of trauma, therefore, they have tended to just throw labels at survivors, rather than looking at the history of a person. They have asked what’s wrong with you, rather than what happened to you? And by doing this, they saw individuals has having something wrong with them, instead of natural consequences or changes to the brain structure such as can occur with trauma. The approach hasn’t been one of empathy and not always an accurate one either.

This approach can still be found, and a lot of work needs to be done in the field to change this. Slowly with the awareness of trauma, new information and more discussion we can hope to see much needed changes. Trauma causes the inability to self-sooth and self-regulate, yet many have been misdiagnosed with bi-polar due to poorly regulated or dysregulated mood states or the popular diagnose that was thrown so easily to label survivors of abuse tended to be BPD(Borderline Personality Disorder) also known by the term Emotional unstable personality disorder, due to again having difficulties regulating emotions, mood instability (which can be caused by triggers in traumatised individuals) and self-harm (part of the survival response; the flight response).

The names themselves tend to suggest a defect in a person. Trauma and emotional dysregulation are therefore, easily labelled and can be easily misdiagnosed. This is also why some of these conditions have also be renamed: Multiple Personality disorder was renamed Dissociative Identity Disorder because the new term accurately focuses on the fact that dissociation is what happens. Again, this dissociation is a natural survival response to extreme abuse and trauma very often in childhood that forms as a creative and ingenious way for the mind to protect itself and survive horrors that no human should ever have to endure and would be too unbearable without this copying mechanism. It is evidence of trauma and of the adaptive brain and the ways symptoms and conditions form to protect our psyche. An extraordinary ability.

Another trauma response that gets misdiagnosed is ADHD, it is not rare for children who experience trauma earlier on in life to be diagnosed more than likely with ADHD, again psychological trauma is being labelled. These are traumatic reactions and not necessarily a mental illness, because symptoms overlap this error is easily made, however, if we start asking the right questions and see people as individuals who we take interest in and show curiosity we will less likely make the mistakes, as seeing people as just their symptoms or ignoring the legacy of trauma is not an empathetic approach or useful at that.  We do not want to unnecessarily medicate people with medication that can have bad side effects and bring them shame if they don’t respond to these and that can in return have individual feel that they are not only wrong, but something must be wrong with them if they are not responding to treatment or for their dosages to be increased when the issue is one of psychological trauma and emotional dysregulation which can be treated with a variety of modalities and where medication should not be the sole or primary modality.

Gabor Mate (physician and expert on trauma/addiction/stress/childhood development) states: “All of the diagnoses that you deal with – depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, even psychosis, are significantly rooted in trauma. They are manifestations of trauma. Therefore, the diagnoses don’t explain anything. The problem in the medical world is that we diagnose somebody, and we think that is the explanation. He’s behaving that way because he is psychotic. She’s behaving that way because she has ADHD. Nobody has ADHD, nobody has psychosis – these are processes within the individual. It’s not a thing that you have. This is a process that expresses your life experience. It has meaning in every single case.” 

Society itself is based on a culture of toxic positivity or statements that silence, dismiss, or minimise the human sufferings of others and the human experience. No emotion is good or bad, all emotions are to be felt and heard and allowed the natural process of being released and healed, instead of the process interrupted, emotions denied, having to be repressed and remain unheard and unresolved and stuck in the process of healing. Emotions are road maps to what is hurting, to what needs to be addressed to the wounds caused to our psyche.

Symptoms manifest and are natural responses just as we would expect a bone to break, the skin to tear and bled in injury, a ligament to rupture, we wouldn’t think this is abnormal and that it says something about someone’s personality. How can we not see that mind, body and soul are connected? That the mind and body is not separate but that what affects the mind will also affect the body? Research has shown from the Polyvagal Theory that all emotions and survival responses are experienced in our nervous system, and that when the back part of our brain is activated and in survival mode, our front part of the brain (logic/thinking) is offline. We automatically react to survive before we have time to think of our actions or thoughts because the brain part in control of logic and reasoning is offline when a threat is posed or felt and the fear response is activated to act and defend ourselves from danger (perceived or real). If we are in this hypoarousal (Freeze/collapsed) state or hyperarousal (Flight/fight) state, we will find it difficult to emotionally regulate ourselves and for those growing up with parents who were absent or unattuned or in case of abusive ones nobody has taught us these skills. Nobody is born with the ability to self-regulate themselves.

Traumatologist John Briere stated: “If CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) were ever given its due, the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) used by all mental health professionals would shrink from its dictionary like size to the size of a thin pamphlet”. What this understands is that the role of traumatised childhoods in most adult psychological disorders is enormous.

Other misdiagnoses are those of depression and anxiety.

Trauma and its legacy can of course co-occur with mental conditions, but many can be accurately described as the natural survival responses found in trauma, example ADHD and compulsive obsessive can be responses to the fight response, depression to the freeze/collapse response. Responses that were created to protect us at the time and served the role for our survival. It doesn’t mean our suffering is any less or real or that we can’t have biological conditions, but it means we need the right treatment and support and to accurately see these experiences for what they are.

This is such so important to always bear in mind and to know and I hope that others can find it helpful and useful.


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