As a psychologist, I marvel at the tenacity and courage it takes for women to discuss traumatic experiences in therapy. It may not feel courageous in the moment; in fact, it may feel like the exact opposite. Trauma has been defined in a number of ways, but here I use psychologists John Briere and Catherine Scott’s (2015) definition: “an event is traumatic if it is extremely upsetting, at least temporarily overwhelms the person’s internal resources, and produces lasting psychological symptoms (p.10)”.
In the cognitive-behavioral model, we believe that what we think influences our emotions and behaviors, and that our thoughts and beliefs are foundational to how we experience our lives. By its definition, traumatic experiences are unexpected, overwhelming, and significantly impactful. How then, do we think about (let alone make sense of and integrate) something like a traumatic event? The beliefs we hold after a traumatic event may be very different from the beliefs possessed prior to the event, and sometimes we get stuck.
For example, let’s consider a woman (we will call her Liz) who believes that 1) she is a capable person and 2) she is generally safe as a single woman dating in the world. Liz agrees to be set up by friends and goes on three dates. While the first few dates were fun and enjoyable for LIz, at the end of their fourth outing her date starts to initiate sex despite Liz’s clear discomfort and attempts to slow it down. She ends up having sex that was unwanted and unsatisfying. Afterwards, Liz feels multiple emotions, including confusion, anger, shame, fear, and hurt. How does she think about and make sense of this experience in light of her prior beliefs about herself in the world? How might her thinking affect her next steps? Research supports that much of how we manage the impact of a trauma comes down to our thoughts and beliefs about the experience, even long after the event itself has occurred.
Below are some common examples of how Liz might have responded to the traumatic experience if we were to focus just on her thoughts and beliefs. Please keep in mind that the following examples are limited and meant to highlight a few of the ways that we may think about a traumatic event. They are not meant to present a “right” or one-size-fits all way of responding to trauma.
Recall that Liz’s prior beliefs included: 1) I am a capable person and 2) I am generally safe as a single woman dating in the world.
Response 1: Maybe this means my date felt chemistry and that meant sex. But it felt like a violation to me because I did not want to move this quickly, and I tried to slow things down. It didn’t work - I felt disregarded in the process and unsafe. I will not date this person again, and will move on to date someone who is more respectful.
Here, Liz’s belief that she is capable manifests as a healthy sense of self-worth and motivates her to an action plan that includes honest self-assertion. She acknowledges that she did not feel safe having sex at the time and will take steps to ensure her safety by dating people who are more respectful. In this example, Liz’s original two beliefs remain intact and produces action that reinforces those beliefs following an unwanted sexual encounter.
Response 2: Why did that happen? Maybe there’s something wrong with me for not wanting to have sex that night. I’m probably overreacting and this is completely normal on a fourth date.
In this response, Liz modifies her first belief to a belief that I must be out of touch and overly sensitive. Instead of viewing herself as a capable person, she wonders if she is inept when it comes to dating. If she changes her original belief about herself, her reaction to the the sexual experience doesn’t reflect perhaps fair misgivings, but points to her as the one with unreasonable expectations. The second belief that she is generally safe dating in the world is maintained because she rethinks her experience as normative rather than a traumatic event.
Response 3: I can’t believe that happened. How could I have allowed myself to be in such an unsafe situation? Something is seriously wrong with me. It’s my fault and I should have known I would be in danger. The world has become a dangerous place.
This example draws attention to an instance where a trauma results in a rejection of all prior positive beliefs. Following the experience of unwanted sex, Liz no longer believes that she can trust herself. Instead, she views herself as flawed and to blame, and she sees the world as inherently dangerous.
These examples show just some of the ways our thoughts play a key role in life and in our suffering after a traumatic event. In therapy at CTWPS, we help our patients talk about and manage the effects of their traumatic experiences on their beliefs and worldview. Our work with our patients leaves us radically hopeful, as we are able to see just how much influence we can have in calibrating our beliefs to our most consistent realities, even following trauma.
If you recognize your own responses in the examples above and would like support in discuss them further, please consider reaching out to us for an initial consultation.