There’s a problem with the way you’re talking about trauma online. Or at least that’s what several critics have suggested, in one way or another, in recent months.
The objectionable trends they’ve observed include people calling everything — even the slightest of personality quirks — a trauma response; using the language of harm for just about anything, thereby diluting the clinical meaning of the word “trauma“; and mistaking understandable pandemic anguish for trauma when it’s really not.
In these pieces and others, I’ve been waiting for recognition of what seems obvious: Traumatic experiences are more widespread than most know or are willing to admit, and growing awareness of that fact on social media and elsewhere might be shifting how people talk about it.
Decades of research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — a phrase that refers to several types of potentially traumatic mistreatment or exposures, including caregiver neglect and abuse, witnessing violence at home, and growing up in a household with substance misuse — has revealed the extent of early-life and adolescent trauma. In one survey of 114,000 American adults, 61 percent of respondents reported that they’d experienced at least one ACE in their lifetime. One in six reported four or more.
The many appraisals of trauma talk don’t mention this fact. Nor do they acknowledge that globally, one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once. Research in the U.S. shows that one in six men are sexually abused or assaulted as children or adults. Critics of trauma talk also fail to fully consider the devastation of experiences like police brutality, racism, and forced migration. In the face of pervasive trauma, these pieces tend to scoff or sneer at people’s interest in the subject or their supposedly misguided use of clinical language, including the word trauma itself. It’s possible to point out that people have developed a casual relationship with the word trauma, much like they’ve adapted “depressed” or “OCD” for their own purposes, without suggesting that fascination with the subject represents a great cultural folly.
A lengthy tour of #TraumaTok, a TikTok hashtag with more than 615 million views, provides disturbing evidence that creators and their followers are indeed trying to process scarring experiences, including those from childhood. These creators recount finding a parent passed out from drug use, enduring repeated sexual abuse, denying a parent’s abuse to Child Protective Services to avoid foster care, and trying to cope with an agonizing physical injury that a parent refuses to take seriously.
The English language doesn’t have enough words for the spectrum of pain these events cause, so it makes sense that trauma prevails as a go-to descriptor. It should be no surprise that the growing number of people publicly coming to terms with past trauma may have prompted others to embrace a term that once felt off-limits but, in fact, accurately describes their experience. Conversations about trauma have lent legitimacy to feelings they previously doubted.
The TikTokers sharing anecdotes of abuse or neglect have their own motivations for filing these stories under #traumatok, ranging from educational to cathartic to, perhaps, clout-seeking. Nevertheless, these candid disclosures are the mentions of trauma that concern me most. The fact that so many of these videos exist and earn such high engagement should arguably be the subject of trauma talk think pieces. Somehow, though, critics ironically suggest that the concept of trauma has been cheapened by the online discourse about it while ignoring or dismissing the extent to which people actually experience trauma.
The implication is that one’s trauma isn’t legitimate unless it’s of the Big T variety: rape, war, catastrophic injury — the type of exposures that can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The so-called little t traumas, like bereavement, job loss, or bullying, are relatively unthreatening and don’t really count. Yet we know that when the chronic stress of such experiences compounds at once or over time, it can have debilitating effects. This includes symptoms like angry outbursts, trouble sleeping, and hyper-vigilance, which are also common to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I do think it’s a problem for people to question the validity of people’s stories.”
Never mind that people who experience trauma shouldn’t have to buttress their claim with evidence of such misery to be believed. It’s not self-indulgent or frivolous to describe events that caused deep, persistent emotional or psychological pain as traumatic, even if others think you’ve not earned the right to use that word.
“I do think it’s a problem for people to question the validity of people’s stories — of whether it’s true or not,” says Dr. Patrice Berry, a psychologist and TikTok creator in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “Trauma can be anything that is too much, too fast, where the person didn’t have the ability to integrate their experience.”
Berry says that #TraumaTok frequently surfaces stories of severe childhood adversity. Sometimes the creator is open to receiving support following the disclosure. In other cases, the person might simply appear interested in catharsis, but then TikTok’s algorithm catapults the content to the platform’s For You Page, effectively helping it go viral. Berry acknowledges that, in her experience, the algorithm appears to elevate material about pain compared to joy, possibly because users respond to content that invokes emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. “People stop and pay attention,” she says.
The interest in stories about trauma could be voyeuristic or searching, or most likely a combination of both. Berry senses that people relate to such confessions. She’s also unsurprised by the volume of trauma storytelling on TikTok during the pandemic. It’s not that people are so emotionally affected by the pandemic, although that’s true to a degree. Instead, a crisis paired with unexpected time to reflect leads to fresh revelations about old experiences, including new awareness about family dysfunction that had been previously ignored or suppressed. That just might explain why people are putting books about trauma on the best-seller list — not because they’re confused about what the concept means or have foolishly bought into the idea that everything is trauma.
Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, actually sees the opposite with her patients, many of whom are college students, university staff and faculty, and high-performing medical professionals. In closed-door therapy, some are hesitant to use the label “trauma,” either because an experience — healthcare workers witnessing horrible deaths during COVID-19, for example — is common among their peer group and therefore accepted, or because they want to protect their privacy as well as the expectation that they’ll be treated equivalently to anyone else. In other words, they don’t to want to create the perception of victimhood, fearing that it could cost them normalcy. Arguably, the criticism of trauma talk perpetuates this dynamic when it focuses obsessively on the supposed misuse of mental health language.
Gold’s concern about mental health discussions on social media has little to do with shifting vernacular. Instead, she’s concerned that people participating in these conversations might, as a result, see ads about products or services that won’t ultimately help them, or that are predatory in nature. It’s also worrying when exchanges about mental health provide users with dangerous information, including details that could unintentionally encourage disordered eating, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. Otherwise, Gold is hopeful that talking about trauma on social media is revelatory more often than not for users.
“If you’re at home and you’re wondering whether this thing you experienced that’s been affecting your life for a long time is a valid thing to be affecting your life, seeing lots of people talk about it and using trauma in different ways as a word, I think it’s helpful, if anything,” says Gold. “I obviously would love it to be the kind of thing that brings people in to get care, if they need it.”
For the most part, the criticism of trauma talk focuses on people’s proclivity for overstating their pain for various reasons, but has strangely omitted the structural factors at play. High quality, culturally competent, and affordable mental health care is notoriously hard to get in the U.S. By comparison, social media is free. Public processing may be unseemly to those who view it as excessive; for others, it’s an improvised support system that meets an urgent need. Berry, the psychologist in Virginia, says many of her followers are eager to learn more about mental health and want to better understand themselves and their life experiences. Unfortunately, her practice is fully booked. Every week, she turns away as many as 10 people seeking care.
Genuinely understanding and explaining the cultural significance of trauma talk requires grappling with the pervasiveness of all kinds of trauma in people’s lives. It means acknowledging that social media platforms incentivize such disclosures — and that invitation is tempting for numerous reasons, including the fact that therapy is inaccessible for many.
Some concerns are warranted. It’s true that influencers and marketers might reel users in with seeming mental health expertise, either personal or professional, to make a buck off the attention by peddling their services or ads. It’s also true that some users find viral success when sharing traumatic experiences, thus creating skepticism about their motivations. And of course, we should be wary of pathologizing an annoying instance of behavior. Yet framing the problem of trauma talk as one of naivete, silliness, or self-indulgence misses the bigger picture: People are talking about trauma because it’s rather common, they’ve experienced it, and they want to stop pretending everything is fine.
“One of the better things about these conversations on social media is that people then ask themselves about their life story and are curious about themselves and want to know what happened…” says Gold. “Inspiration to care about things that happened to you and how those affect what’s going on with you now, I think, is not a bad thing. I don’t know that telling people what words they can use for that is particularly helpful.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected] You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.