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  • Dr. Shane Owens

The nation who cried "trauma!"

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m just a little OCD,” to justify her need to keep things neat and organized?

How many times have you heard someone talk about being “depressed” after watching the home team lose a big game?

How many times have you heard someone in the media refer to odd behavior as “schizophrenic?”

These words and phrases have found their way into our everyday language. Much of the time, they escape notice.

But, if you ask someone who has experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or schizophrenia, misusing these words is a huge problem.

Using “OCD” to refer to excessive neatness minimizes the experience of those who cannot break the cycle of intrusive thoughts and rituals.

Using “depression” to describe “sadness” or “disappointment” obscures the physical and emotional pain of a complex, debilitating syndrome.

Referring to odd behavior as “schizophrenic” perpetuates discrimination against those struggling against its cognitive, behavioral, and emotional toll.

In recent days, “trauma” is common in casual conversations, on social media, and in mainstream media. In these places, "trauma" refers to the shock, disappointment, sadness, disgust, and fear that some feel in response to the election of Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential campaign.

According to the criteria psychologists use to diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma requires direct, repeated or sustained exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Experiencing these things through any kind of media is specifically excluded from the definition of a traumatic event.

No amount of exposure to media portrayals of President-Elect Trump’s words—as awful or horrible as they may seem to some of us—is enough to leave someone traumatized.

Do not let The Atlantic, USA Today, The Guardian, Politico, or your social media connections tell you what you are experiencing is "traumatic".

Psychologists mean something vastly different from the media when they talk about trauma and traumatic events.

The media have a responsibility to be more precise in their language.

As our understanding of the ravages of mental illness, we all have a responsibility to take greater care with our words.

We cannot identify and treat those suffering with the symptoms of exposure to trauma—intrusive thoughts, nightmares, paralyzing physiological symptoms—if we misappropriate the term.

Mislabeling your feelings about the election does not help you work through them.

Call it shock. Call it disappointment. Call it sadness. Call it disgust. Call it fear.

Do not call it trauma.


Feelings cannot be right or wrong. But, if you are feeling overwhelmed by any emotion, please contact a psychologist.

If you have experienced trauma, please get help from a psychologist specifically trained in treatment of trauma-related disorders.

For more information or to arrange an appointment, contact me.

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