Debunking the myths: what trauma is and is not

Trauma is not something to “just get over”

Many think that after war, when the peace accords have been signed and weapons are put away, people should "just get over it" and return to normal life. This myth indicates an urge and wish for a quick fix or even magical thinking - "if I don’t think about it, it just might go away." Yet the wounds of war have cut through the social and political fabric on all levels of society. A refugee during the 1990s Bosnian war who later returned home to rebuild and has been working on trauma healing for the past 15 years. Amela Puljek-Shank noted;

You can make peace on the governmental level and think that our work is over but when 2 million people are displaced and traumatized? How can you make peace when trauma healing does not take place? How can we heal conflicts if we don't have any idea how to heal traumas? To create real peace, there needs to be recognition of the trauma and time for trauma healing to take place - at the national level as well as individual level.

(Good Sider 2001)

Dealing with trauma requires more than a one-time solution. Trauma healing is a journey or a process that occurs on many levels, from individual to community to country. Additionally, trauma healing is not linear. Like the stages of grief, one does not follow a tidy progression from one stage to the next. Trauma healing, like trauma itself, is messy, confusing, intense and overwhelming. People often jump back and forth between phases, from being eager to move on to not able to quiet the nightmares to shutting down to finding something hopeful, and on and on. Others experience some healing but then find themselves locked in a web of desire for revenge, wanting someone to pay for the wrongs. The pain, violation or injustice of trauma is often so great that the survivor’s main impulse - which can be trapped for months or years - is to strike back, wanting someone to pay for the pain. This is entirely normal. Survivors need to find their own answers to the question "Why move on?" if they want to exit the cycle of violence (Good Sider 2006).

In the aftermath of atrocities, survivors often feel the tension of a dialectic of silence, which denies the horrible event, and the will to shout the truth from the rooftops. Herman writes that the trauma is:

[t]oo terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.. .. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.

(Herman 1997, 1)

Even with decades of amnesia, the brain and the body remember and gradually find ways to tell the story, even if it is repressed (Rothschild 2000; van der Kolk 2014; Scaer 2014; Herman 1997). The body will express the wound even through unconscious behaviors.

The hope that time will heal the pain, while widely held, is not realistic. Trauma does not simply melt away with time, because trauma changes us forever. Some speak of a "new normal” as a way of indicating that when there is so much wounding and breakage, one can never return to the way things were, even though that is just what so many long for. This book repeatedly considers the reality that people who have survived a traumatic event cannot forget it. Moreover, unhealed trauma can be transferred to later generations, and the cycle of violence may continue. Trauma or pain that is not transformed will be transferred.

Trauma is not a mental illness

Traumatized people are not mentally ill, as they are sometimes stigmatized or labeled. Additionally, having an experience of trauma does not mean that one has PTSD.3 Correctly put. trauma is a normal, natural response to an abnormal, overwhelming incident. Trauma elicits biological "responses of catastrophe" in the body to facilitate survival in any situation that seriously threatens our lives or safety - real or perceived (Herman 1997, 33). In her seminal text on trauma and healing, Herman describes trauma as

events [that] overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.. .. Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.


Trauma involves a roller coaster ride of intense emotions and biological responses. Beyond a "mental condition," the wounds of war trauma disrupt our usual functioning and have consequences in all areas of the human experience across all four

"B’s”: Body, Brain, Beliefs and Behavior (Good 2009; see discussion later in the chapter). Symptoms range from flashbacks to irritability and sadness, and from memory loss to dissociative states, and are a means of avoiding engaging with situations that are reminiscent of the trauma event. Symptoms can be ignited from triggers in the survivor’s environment such as smells, images or sounds and can be prolonged if a sense of safety is not regained.

When these biological approaches are considered in tandem with the historical evolution of the field, trauma may be better conceptualized as a spectrum rather than a static disordered condition. As such, psychologists and trauma practitioners prefer to distinguish between traumatic stress and the diagnostic term posttraumatic stress disorder, codified in the DSM-III by Western psychiatric professionals.4 While the term PTSD has been exported globally through humanitarian responses, peacebuilding initiatives and international security interventions, there has been little consideration of cultural and social understandings of trauma, its identification, manifestation and ways of healing it. Uniform definitions and increasing familiarity with the idea of PTSD leads many to blanketly apply the term to experiences of traumatic stress, while (self-)ascribing the diagnosis of trauma to everyday experiences of distress. British psychiatrist Derek Summerfield (1999) critiques Western mental health labeling of trauma after war and provocatively asks if PTSD is an invented Western psychological condition; he questions Western professionals who arrive in war zones and import their diagnoses and cures, ignoring cultural traditions and social practices. This corresponds to peace scholar-practitioner John Paul Lederach’s (1995) urge for peacebuilders to work from an elicitive approach rather than a prescriptive one.

The simplification of traumatic stress into one blanket condition of PTSD also misses the capacity of many to find resilience and effectively cope with traumatic stress despite trauma’s debilitation. While exposure to a traumatic event elicits a stress response, the reactions externally in the person’s sociocultural environment, as well as her or his internal resilience, determine the extent to which that stress becomes debilitating.

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