The ‘traumatic myth’ is something I’ve been wanting to write about for some time.

That’s because the traumatic myth is responsible for a great deal of misunderstanding and, perhaps more importantly, a lack of effective therapeutic help for those enduring the effects of posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What’s the great myth? I’ll tell you – It’s really simple.

The traumatic myth is that of the ‘traumatic event’.

It doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but its existence has deeply affected our societal view of what trauma is and has helped form a perverse academic view which (of course) helps form the basis of expertise and everything that flows thereof.

What I’m talking about here is the mistaken idea that certain event types are, by their nature, traumatic. The road traffic collision for example, or perhaps the sudden loss of a loved one. The reader who may have experienced such an event will perhaps find that the word ‘traumatic’ aptly describes the thoughts, feelings, emotions and state that they remember, but it’s important to note that whatever token is used to describe such an experience, it still remains uniquely subjective, as everyone’s experience is of course different. Traumatic is a word that can be used as a quick ‘go-to’ token which facilitates a level of understanding without having to try and describe the full nature of the maelstrom many people experience, yet have difficulty explaining. 

The term is also widely used within mass-media communications when describing events of a magnitude or severity that would otherwise be difficult to explain within the limited scope of a 2-minute news bulletin.

So – let’s look a little more closely at the term traumatic event and apply a little scrutiny.

To begin, I invite the reader to consider the simple scenario of a road traffic collision, involving the death of a passenger. From the 999 call until the closure of the incident, it’s possible that around 30 (sometimes more) blue-light responders may have attended the scene. Logic would dictate that if the event was intrinsically traumatic, then every responder who experienced it would therefore betraumatised. And yet this is not the case. Indeed, it is only occasionally (despite the nature of the event) that someone develops the symptoms required for a clinical diagnosis such as PTSD. The concept of the traumatic event therefore fails to hold water based upon logic alone.

It may be noted by the reader that first responders do sometimes develop PTSD, and often, causality is assigned to operational incidents. Indeed, many academics (usually from outside of the emergency services) rely upon statistical analysis of event types when developing trauma risk management tools. To explain this mistaken approach, we must look to the philosopher David Hume, whose works regarding causality are well-known and respected. Hume showed us that the repeated association of two phenomena does not imply causality. He used the term ‘constant conjunction’ to describe this. It seems therefore, that statistical analysis has therefore only provided evidence of constant conjunction, which does not, of course, prove causality.

We may look to another philosopher, often referred to as the philosopher – Aristotle, whose remarkable insights in his works the ‘Categories’ provide a logical perspective on this matter. Aristotle tells us that some things can be said of somethingand some things can be said to be in something. If we apply Aristotle’s ideas of what is predicable to an event in the physical world then, whilst we may be able to say of it that it is traumatic, we cannot say that trauma is in an event, for an event simply is an observable change, which would carry no meaning whatsoever, were nobody in fact present to observe it. Hence, it is folly to say of an event that it is traumatic, if it is literally impossible for trauma to exist within it.

Indeed, taking an Aristotelian view of the conclusions reached from statistical analysis regarding trauma, we may say with a high degree of confidence that academia has failed to look beyond the efficient cause. Hence the robustness of research outcomes may also be considered flawed. Especially older trauma risk management models. That matter though, is perhaps the subject of a future article.

Upon enlightenment, with the traumatic myth now removed, how may we explain the causality of trauma?

In my next blog, I’ll address how it’s possible to reach a more robust conclusion to this question.

Until then, take care during these difficult times,

Posted by:Sean McCallum CTIRt CCt

Crisis Intervention & Trauma Consultant