Dear 100 Hour Board,
tl;dr: where can I learn more about trauma disorders that are the result of events that most people wouldn’t define as traumatic?
Sister Reyna Aburto said: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have made a covenant with God that we “are willing to bear one another’s burdens” and “to mourn with those that mourn.” This may include becoming informed about emotional illnesses, finding resources that can help address these struggles, and ultimately bringing ourselves and others to Christ, who is the Master Healer. Even if we do not know how to relate to what others are going through, validating that their pain is real can be an important first step in finding understanding and healing.”
I have recently had 3 friends tell me they have a diagnosis of PTSD. I have worked with war veterans and war refugees in the past, and I thought that PTSD was the result of something like war/being shot/watching someone die. I can understand why people who have experienced these things would have PTSD.
All three of my PTSD friends grew up very wealthy, in loving homes, were never sexually abused, and were not spanked or physically abused at any time. They were supported by their wealthy parents as adults and have not experienced economic hardship. When they have related their “traumatic experiences” to me, I feel skeptical. The experiences they tell me about (though uncomfortable) are very normal and I would not define them as traumatic. The “traumatic experiences” they have shared include being called names once in middle school, having been yelled at by their parents a handful of times, and having a childhood friend they grew apart from as they got older.
I would like to support my friends and be more sympathetic to their issues. However, I am struggling to validate them at this point, because I don’t think their experiences are that traumatic, even though all three of them have been diagnosed by either a therapist or psychologist. Are there any resources that could help me better understand PTSD that is caused by events that most people wouldn’t define as traumatic? I would like to be sympathetic and Christlike, but right now I’m pretty skeptical and judgey.
I won't call my experience PTSD, as I lack a formal diagnosis on that particular question. But I do have strong anxiety, which has recently graduated from annoying to debilitating.
So by any standards, I think I fit the bill you describe. I grew up in a happy, tight-knit family. I have never been physically or sexually abused, and in general I've had a pretty comfortable and privileged, if not exceptional, life.
And yet, starting in April, I suddenly began to have anxiety so severe that I went to the ER on three separate occasions over four months, thinking each time that I was in life-threatening danger. For a period of nearly three weeks over the summer, before I started medication, my physical health deteriorated so quickly that I was virtually bedridden. I could barely cross from one end of a room to the other, let alone the whole house, without feeling completely out of breath and in danger of an abnormally high heart rate. It was so debilitating that I could barely handle my own basic needs. I've had anxiety my whole life, and I thought that it was hard socially on a mission, but not until this year did it suddenly--and dramatically--start stunting my physical, mental, and emotional health. And on top of that, I can't even tell you why. I have no idea what changed in April that sent me to the hospital, and why even now I'm still physically and emotionally much weaker than I used to be. I don't think I could qualify now to serve a mission if I tried.
And yet I understand your skepticism. I knew, even when I was having anxiety attacks, that I was having completely irrational thoughts. It isn't normal to be unable to sleep because you keep having uncontrollable, disruptive, intrusive thoughts of what might happen if you suddenly go into some kind of life-threatening emergency. It isn't normal to be unable to limp even extremely short distances without feeling out of breath and physically overworked. Knowing that I had no cause to feel the way I did didn't do anything to relieve my condition. In my first week out of the hospital, I didn't do anything other than lie on the couch and focus on breathing deeply, because I couldn't get my heart rate to slow down to something that felt normal even when I was lying down doing nothing.
I mention all this because mental health is deeply and inextricably linked to physical health, and while physical health is normally visible, intuitive, and obvious, mental health rarely is. In all my doctor visits and hospital tests, we've concluded that my physical health looks perfectly normal. I don't have some kind of extenuating heart, lung, or stomach issue. I don't feel unreasonable stress. So why did I have such debilitating, overwhelming anxiety this summer, and why did I suddenly need medical help to handle it? By all accounts, my circumstances were, and are, quite comfortable. I had nothing to worry about, and yet I lay there helplessly, overwhelmed and unable to function. I've been taking medication dutifully for months, and while I feel drastically improved compared to three months ago--almost normal, some days--I'm still at a fraction of the activity I was before.
I'm afraid I'm not aware of specific resources for you to find out more, but I hope that my personal experience helps shed some light on things. I know it can be difficult, but you've got to take your friends at face value in how they describe their experiences--especially if they've been medically diagnosed. As you note, some events we commonly associate with anxiety and PTSD--like war--are virtually universal, and completely understandable from any reasonable perspective. However, many more are not. Events that may seem normal and mundane to you may be overwhelming to someone else, and even absent such experiences, genetics and other factors can predispose people to suffer mental and emotional illness through no fault of their own, just as with any health condition. Anxiety can come seemingly without cause and pass just as easily, or it can become so overwhelming and uncontrollable that it puts a person in physical danger. Even though I don't consciously choose to feel this way, and I can think of no reason why I should do so unconsciously, the fact is that I do. And I have to take medication to help keep it under control.
I know how difficult that can be to understand if it's not something you experience. I spent over a year on my mission having to explain to other missionaries again and again and again that social anxiety was not simply being nervous to approach people or not knowing what to say, and that praying and reading my scriptures wasn't taking away the bodily responses I felt were totally beyond my control. But I hope that reading about my personal experience suffering with a burden of seemingly unreasonable and unnecessary anxiety helps you understand what your friends might be feeling. Like you, they're probably also skeptical of why they have these strong responses, and almost certainly frustrated with having to suffer them. They probably feel forced into feeling very difficult and painful things they'd rather not. Unfortunately, just like with physical illness, mental illness isn't something we can simply choose not to feel.
I hope this helps. Feel free to reach out if you'd like to know more.