The Cultural Trivialization of Trauma

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[My laptop plays Grace and Frankie]

Here are some questions I’ve been reflecting on lately:

Why do people increasingly call non-trauma things ‘trauma’? Like, in a joking way? How did it become acceptable to use the words ‘trauma’ and ‘PTSD’ as jokes? What moved us in this direction? And most of all, what is the impact of using language in these ways?

You may ask yourself, what do you mean, Renee? Who uses these words as jokes?

I actually hear this a lot. I hear it several times a month, and it always sends me down a trail of reflection. You might hear it too once you think about it. This has become an increasingly normalized thing to do.

Here are some things I’ve heard lately:

— “I almost slipped on the ice back there. It was so traumatic!”

— “The trauma of not having coffee today!”

I wrote about these kinds of comments and the larger questions above in an Instagram story just two days ago. The very next day, I was watching Grace and Frankie on Netflix (new season!) and there it was again.

The four adult children of a blended family are standing around, trying to figure out how they’re going to tell their mothers that they think they need to move back into an assisted living apartment complex. They decide to draw straws to determine who will have the conversation.

That’s when Coyote, one of the sons, says, “I still kind of have PTSD. This is how we decided who was going to tell Mom that Paul Newman died.”

Bud, his brother, says, “Yeah, she hit you pretty hard.”

Coyote adds, “Not as hard as she’s going to hit the person who tells her she has to move back to Walden Villas.”

I know people do not intend to be hurtful when they say things like these, but consider how minimizing of trauma this is… Sometimes, these comments are made in presence of actual trauma survivors. (Surprise! We blend in!)

I mean, travel down this rabbit hole of reflection with me… How did this, and why did this become increasingly common language? For instance, imagine inserting a different word. Go ahead. Really imagine that. A synonym of some kind.

Would we use that word for our almost-ice-slipping and not-coffee-having, etc.?

No, we wouldn’t.

And experiences of trauma, post-trauma, and being traumatized involve physical symptoms. Sometimes, these can be debilitating. Imagine inserting some big, physical challenge as a symptom.

Would we say that’s what our almost-ice-slipping and not-coffee-having was like?

No, we wouldn’t say that.

How did it become okay, unquestioned, or funny to call them “trauma”?

So often, trauma survivors have to worry about being believed,
about

…the events of trauma themselves

and

…physical and emotional needs, which may look invisible but be pronounced.

When we trivialize what trauma is, we make these things harder. That’s probably not intended, but it has a big impact. To demonstrate this, let’s travel back to that scene on Grace and Frankie.

Coyote says, “I still kind of have PTSD” as hyperbole in an attempt to express how angry his Mom is going to be. Sure, this is a joke, but… it would be insensitive to say we have Cancer, AIDS, and Diabetes “about things,” right?

We would never say that.
How has PTSD so often become a hyperbole joke?

This has a real impact. My point is, if culturally, trauma and PTSD are used frequently as nods toward exaggeration — “Geez, Mom was so upset about Paul Newman that it gave me PTSD!”And if this happens often…

… is it that much of a stretch that folks will begin to treat trauma survivors and people with PTSD like they’re exaggerating? Their symptoms? Their needs for accommodation?

If everything is “trauma…”

… “is your trauma really that bad? Or that serious?”

This is what’s at stake with minimization.

And if PTSD is an exaggerated word meaning “the pinnacle of something terrible” — This is how angry Mom is going to be, etc — and this usage becomes commonplace in every day language…

… is a person with actual PTSD “just really extra” and someone to be avoided? Maybe overdramatic? Maybe even dangerous? I mean… do we really want them on our workforce? Can they adopt a child? Can they serve on our committee?

And in order to do these things without negative consequences to themselves, do trauma survivors and people with PTSD need to hide this part of their lives from you? Their stories? Their needs for accommodation?

This is what’s at stake with exaggeration.

Minimization of trauma and exaggeration of the ‘badness’ of PTSD are both at stake when these jokes are made in everyday language. If you hear someone do this, please find a time to say something. If it’s hard to do that in the moment, then perhaps later. Permission to send this post along.

Renee Roederer

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