Cynthia Degnan, PhD, MSW, LCSW
Intake and Trauma Therapist
Over the years that I’ve studied and worked with trauma, I have found that one of the most hurtful and misguided myths about trauma is that the victim-survivor will have no doubt or confusion about their experience if the event was truly traumatic. I’ve seen this especially with interpersonal and gender-based violence, where so-called “concrete evidence" of a traumatic event can be hard to come by. What is even more painful is that survivors can begin to question the legitimacy of their trauma if they have unclear memories or if their emotional responses have changed over time. Both of those experiences, however, are actually pretty typical—and may even be symptoms of the trauma itself. If you are a trauma survivor and have ever doubted whether the trauma truly occurred, here are some common reasons why that might be your experience.
Trauma impacts memory
A traumatic event triggers a neurobiological response that literally changes the way we process memory. The hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system in our brains, is tasked with processing and storing memory. But when a traumatic event occurs, the amygdala, which is sort of like an alarm system in the brain that signals danger, tells the hippocampus to begin pumping the stress hormone cortisol into our systems so that we can prepare for a fight, flight, or freeze response. The hippocampus is therefore diverted from its typical function of storing memories. For this reason, memories of trauma might feel very different from memories of other experiences.* They might be fragmented and remembered almost as a series of snapshots rather than as a coherent narrative like a film. They might have very sharp impressions of specific parts of the event but not others. Some parts of the traumatic event might be hard to remember at all. This is all very common, but it can also leave survivors questioning whether their experiences are real, since the memories don’t feel as solid as other, non-traumatic memories.
Interpersonal trauma often involves emotional manipulation
This is especially true for children who were traumatized by a caregiver or other trusted person, and for people who have experienced intimate partner violence. In both situations, perpetrators will often manipulate and gaslight their victims mentally and emotionally. They might communicate repeatedly that the experience is not traumatic, or that the survivor caused it to happen. In both situations, beginning to internalize these messages can be a survival strategy at the time. Children need their caregivers to keep them alive and therefore will find all kinds of ways to mentally adjust themselves in order to secure that support, especially since they generally do not have the power to change their circumstances. Adults who experience intimate partner violence may internalize this as a way of appeasing a perpetrator and trying to ensure physical safety. Internalizing these messages, however, creates neural pathways for these thoughts that make them almost into a mental habit. They don’t just turn off when the trauma has passed, which can leave trauma survivors wondering for years if what they experienced really happened, or really “counted” as trauma. For many survivors, part of their healing work is disentangling the thoughts and emotions that their perpetrators left them with from those that are true to who they are in the present moment.
Trauma disrupts our sense of control
A traumatic event almost always removes a survivor’s control over their own body and experiences. Part of what is traumatic is to suddenly not have agency to decide what happens in a terrifying situation, whether it is a car accident or a sexual assault. One way to heal from trauma, then, is to regain a sense of agency. This is why rape crisis workers advocate for survivors to make their own decisions about how to respond to the assault. Whatever they decide, having agency to make those decisions is healing. The desire for a sense of control, though, can lead survivors to doubt the trauma itself. Self-blame, for example, can sometimes stem from the logic that if we can figure out what we did wrong in a situation, we can figure out how to keep it from happening again. These thoughts are adaptive in that they serve to provide a sense of control in a world that might feel totally out of control. On the other hand, such thoughts can contribute to the deep shame that many trauma survivors carry with them long after the trauma has ended. A similar logic sometimes applies to a survivor questioning whether trauma even happened, for example, being unsure if an event “counts” as an assault. If trauma disrupts our sense of order and justice in the world, questioning the experience can carry a promise that the world will make sense again.
Trauma is disorienting
Trauma in the moment is deeply disorienting and confusing to our brains and bodies, and so are trauma responses. One way I often describe the experience of being triggered is that your brain and body are responding to something that happened in the past as if it is happening in the present. The emotions and responses are correct and valid, but they might not be in the correct time. This can lead to some trauma survivors feeling “crazy” or “broken” and not trusting their own experiences. It is common for people to question whether they are overreacting now, which can easily lead survivors to questioning whether they overreacted to the traumatic experience itself.
Ways to challenge the doubt and validate experiences of trauma
If any of these thought patterns or experiences resonate for you, you may be wondering where to go next. Sometimes survivors will comb over all of the details of their trauma on a loop, trying to find a memory or piece of evidence concrete enough to convince themselves that it really happened and really is as bad as they feel. While it might be possible to get more clarity by exploring memories of trauma (hopefully with a trauma-informed therapist or other strong support system), looking to the past can’t always provide the certainty we desire.
If the way you remember your trauma is part of what contributes to your self-doubt, it can be helpful to know that there are different kinds of memory. When we are searching for a coherent narrative about an experience, we are looking for what is called explicit memory. This kind of memory can be consciously brought to mind and often comes with narrative or informational content. These memories feel like they are stored in our heads. This is the kind of memory that is most impacted by our brain’s response to trauma. Implicit memory, however, is the memory that we store unconsciously and lives more in the body.** This is an equally valid form of memory. If you are experiencing strong implicit memories, such as having a strong fear response to a certain smell or noticing somatic symptoms of trauma like persistent gastrointestinal issues, this is another piece of evidence that you experienced something that was terrifying and intolerable, and that overwhelmed your resources to manage it.
Another valid indicator of trauma that survivors have is their present experience. We are built with some fairly predictable responses to trauma, and therefore the presence of those responses is a good indication of whether a traumatic event took place. Some of those responses are behavioral, like a strong startle response or avoidance of triggering circumstances, and some are emotional, like a persistent sense of shame or depression. All of the things I’ve described in this post are very common trauma responses and may themselves be an indication that trauma occurred. While trauma responses are statistically predictable and common, everyone’s experience of trauma is unique and depends on circumstances of the event or events. Learning about common trauma responses can be very validating. And it can be helpful to have a knowledgeable guide to help you unpack how your specific trauma responses show up in your life.
*This video provides a brief and clear explanation of the way our brain and memory are impacted by trauma.
**Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score and Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger are great places to start if you would like to learn more about this.