Trauma as a medical phenomenon has its roots in the late 19th century, when it was known as “railway spine”, a condition suffered by survivors of railway accidents (a new phenomenon at the time) and believed to be caused by microscopic lesions in the body. It arose in tandem with the insurance industry; people seeking compensation needed evidence to back up their claims, particularly if they hadn’t been visibly injured. During the first world war, it was recognised but afforded little sympathy: traumatised soldiers were seen as unpatriotic, cowardly and lazy.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” came into use. But to begin with, the diagnosis was limited to military veterans. Eventually, the concept of trauma was expanded to include survivors of sexual violence, familial abuse and other catastrophes – a positive development.
Today, “trauma” is used to describe just about anything: being ghosted, being cheated on by a lover, being betrayed by a friend. In fact, almost any of the painful minutiae of relating to other people. It has become the dominant frame for thinking about unhappiness. There’s good reasons for this: traumatic childhood experiences, for example, are a significant factor in basically any social problem you could care to name, including addiction, mental illness and homelessness. On an individual level, its impact can be profound. As Dr Bessel Vander Kolk wrote in The Body Keeps the Score: “Trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from the irrelevant.”
"When the trauma narrative becomes the go-to explanation for unhappiness, it may distract us from what’s making us miserable in the here and now"
In the last decade, trauma has become a common theme in popular culture. Think of TV shows such as Fleabag, I May Destroy You and Girls, novels such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, albums such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener and even Lady Gaga’s Chromatica. All of these works received acclaim in part for the sensitive way they handled the theme of trauma. Elsewhere, it’s been handled more clumsily: I’ve recently been watching Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which takes a sledgehammer to the psychological subtlety of the Shirley Jackson novel on which it is based, making the idea of being “haunted” by the past tediously literal. Often, trauma can be a lazy shortcut to profundity.
In the past, criticisms of trauma have tended to be reactionary, tied up with now familiar debates around social justice movements, trigger warnings and safe spaces. Unless you fought in a war, their argument goes, you can’t really be traumatised, and claiming otherwise makes you a cry-baby. There are more nuanced versions of the same argument, based on the idea that we’ve shifted from an objective understanding of trauma (something really bad has happened to you) to a subjective one (something has happened to you which you feel has caused lasting damage). The confusion this causes makes it harder to diagnose and talk about “real” trauma, or at least that’s how the argument goes.
While it’s important to understand that not all painful experiences are traumatic, I’m not convinced that this kind of linguistic expansion is that big a deal. If someone considers themselves traumatised, they are likely to be in some kind of distress, and deserving of help and sympathy – even if you think the reason offered seems a little insubstantial. Besides, people can and do escape horrible situations without being traumatised, and then elsewhere be deeply affected by seemingly minor events. Unless you’re a strict prescriptivist, I also don’t see the harm in someone using the language of trauma in an ironic or hyperbolic way, for instance, to describe an awkward run-in with an ex or pissing yourself on a night bus.
But I do worry that the omnipresence of the “trauma narrative” in our culture might also be corrosive. For a couple of years, earlier in my 20s, I was obsessed with the idea that I was traumatised, irreversibly damaged. (I had reasons to think so.) The trauma narrative informed almost everything I did, particularly my relationships with other people. I felt little motivation to change my behaviour (even when this was nothing grander than deciding not to text someone) because, as I saw it, I was a traumatised person and this was the form it was taking. Trauma was a curse and an absolution: my life was destined to be terrible and nothing was ever my responsibility.
During this time, I was working for the minimum wage on a zero-hours contract, and living in a flat with no living room and mould in the bathroom. Eventually, owing to no particular effort on my part, my material and social circumstances improved. As this happened, I began to feel less doomed to unhappiness, less irreversibly damaged. I ended up in a relationship with someone decent and kind; I made more friends and ended up with a more supportive network than I had before. I stopped working in bars and started getting paid to write which, while precarious and stressful in its own way, allowed me a lot more control over how I spent my time. It turned out that, even as the effects of trauma lingered, I wasn’t doomed in the way that I’d imagined.
The trauma narrative, I realised, has an obfuscatory effect, drawing a curtain over the more material sources of unhappiness in our lives in the present. As the clinical psychologist David Smail wrote in The Origins of Unhappiness: “The psychologizing of ‘interpersonal relations’… suggests that the answer to our social ills lies somewhere within our hearts and minds.” This plays into the “interests of those at the top of our social pyramid who – whether consciously or not – are only too pleased not to have their methods come under social scrutiny.” Today, people have less job security, less disposable income, less support of all kinds from the state than, socialise less and work longer hours than 10 years ago. Study after study has shown that social media use is correlated with unhappiness. Our reality is, in many ways, extremely unpleasant. The trauma narrative goes some way to turning these environmental factors into individual pathologies.
At the same time, setting up a dichotomy between trauma and environmental factors would make no sense. Trauma is an environmental factor, it’s just one that relates to the past. That doesn’t make it any less significant. If you look at the history of psychiatry, viewing mental illness as stemming from trauma, rather than brain disease or character flaw, is a huge step forward. Trauma is usually caused, however obliquely, by structural problems that have collective solutions. There are ways of thinking about it which aren’t individualised and which could well be empowering. But when the trauma narrative becomes the go-to explanation for unhappiness, it may distract us from what’s making us miserable in the here and now.
It’s not always possible to change our individual circumstances: most of us can’t choose to have more money, work in a less stressful job or live in a nicer flat than we already do. But it is possible to engage in some kind of collective effort to improve them. Even if this doesn’t pay dividends any time soon, the sense of collective possibility can be beneficial in its own right, it can make you an agent of the present rather than a victim of the past. Rethinking the trauma narrative, and realising that the sources of our unhappiness go beyond the individual, might empower us to feel like we can actually do something about them. We are more than the sum of the bad things that have been done to us.
About the Author
James Greig is a journalist based in London who writes about culture and society, and is working on his first book. You can find the first publication of his article here.