Everything is either therapeutic or traumatic.

After I published my last blog post, I sent it out to friends and family and asked for their thoughts and opinions. People were trying to be polite and to avoid hurting my feelings, so most of the feedback that I received was pretty positive but a bit vague, like “great idea”, “it’s nice”, and so on.

However, one of them stood out, saying … I am a bit oversaturated with content that starts with “3 ways to…”, “4 rules for…” “5 strategies to…” and so on. It’s very a very popular format. The internet is scattered with YouTube videos, blog posts or articles in which anything and everything is either therapeutic or trauma inducing. Great feedback, don’t you think? It definitively made me reevaluate what I had written. The first question that came to my mind was, Is this person right? Is it really like that? Let’s investigate.

Watching some YouTube videos and reading some mental health blogs posts, I came to the conclusion that in a way, a lot of content out there is either black or white. There’s a lot of exaggeration and oversimplification.

What is “therapeutic” and what isn’t?

It’s safe to say that the foundations of good mental health are some lifestyle choices that can make a big difference to our wellbeing. To be more specific: sleep, a healthy diet, sports or any kind of physical exercise or bodily movement. These are not therapeutic per se. But they are aspects of our lives that satisfy some of our basic needs.
Maybe a more concrete example could help illustrate my idea even better. Let’s take the use of imagery as a therapeutic technique.

Chilling in a hammock on a hot summer day, letting our imagination go wild, dreaming about being a superhero, or having the perfect relationship, or being famous and successful. But by daydreaming we can potentially decrease our motivation to act according to our vision of the future, because we already feel satisfied enough in our imagination. All this without anything actually happening in real life.

On the other hand, imagery is a very effective technique when used properly. Firstly, guided imagery can be used as a way of giving ourselves a safe and less stressful exposure to things or places or thoughts that were are afraid of, such as fear of heights or airplanes, fear of spiders, agoraphobia or even PTSD. Secondly, for people with relationship problems, like shyness, fear of abandonment and so on, imagery can be useful in order to develop the desired attitude, behaviour, thoughts and emotions.

I will not go into too much detail about how imagery is used in therapy. What I want to point out is that How? and When? and For what purpose? are the most important questions that can make any technique into either an ordinary thought process or into an effective therapeutic method. In other words, nothing is really inherently “therapeutic”.

Are the same things “traumatic” for everyone?

It is needless to say that trauma is often used very inaccurately on the internet. Someone could have the impression that almost any experience could turn out to be traumatic, or that almost any problem we struggle with today could be traced back to some trauma.

There are events in life that could leave a mark on almost anybody, such as life threatening experiences, bullying or sexual abuse. Not everyone who is exposed to these kinds of situations will have the same age, personality traits, psychological resources, coping mechanisms, and so on. The degree to which we could be marked by such experiences depends on many factors, which means that traumatic events are not the same for everyone.

At one point in time, I was part of a team that counselled people who had witnessed or directly experienced accidents at work in which they could have died. In one particular case I spoke to a fireman who as a first responder had the job of gathering up human remains after an explosion. Contrary to what people might imagine, he felt a feeling of satisfaction, of usefulness and pride, that he was the only fireman that had the nerve and resolve to do this, so no trauma for him, not even three months later.

In conclusion, not everything is either black or white. Perhaps we need to learn to see all the grayscale values. It is important to be aware of events, experiences and other things that might elicit a trauma response in us. That being said, we shouldn’t forget that not everything is about exterior events. The interior life of a person is just as important, if not even more important when talking about what is therapeutic or traumatic.

Special thanks to Cristina Dragoi for inspiration and feedback.

Written by Karol J. Wild

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