In current TikTok parlance, almost any behavior can be a trauma response. Struggling to make small decisions? Possible trauma response. Overpreparing, overanalyzing, overachieving? All possible trauma responses. Scrolling on social media to the point where you wonder if you have a problem with scrolling? Trauma response. Getting defensive and lashing out in fights with your significant other? Trauma response. Being a perfectionist? You guessed it, also a possible trauma response.
The platform’s explanations for why exactly these activities might be trauma responses are usually delivered by someone claiming to be a therapist, or perhaps a “coach.” There is colorful text, and sometimes sad piano music. Or the information is relayed in a trendy TikTok format—for example, in one video, Britt Piper, a “coach,” who has taken several trainings on trauma and has nearly 200,000 followers, acts out various “trauma responses” to the soundtracks of songs from Bo Burnham’s musical comedy special Inside. In another, she invites viewers to “put a finger down” while she lists off various behaviors to find out whether they are a good friend or if they are just stuck in a trauma response. Another poses the question: “Is this your trauma response?” as text over a video made by a woman who goes by the handle Ask Courtney. Courtney, who goes by her first name to help avoid harassment and has 340,000 followers, says she has worked in the mental health field and though she sometimes identifies herself as a therapist in videos, she does not have a license—when I press her on her credentials, she said “licensing doesn’t mean anything for mental health,” before adding, “I didn’t crawl out from under a bridge.” The “trauma response” that she is lightly diagnosing viewers with, by the way, is being a “people pleaser.”
The trend of trauma-ifying common behaviors is so pervasive that there are now viral jokes about it. It seems, in part, a simple case of social media rhetoric: relaying a vast assortment of relatable annoyances and pitfalls of being human while simultaneously upping the stakes by saying, “We are all this way because we are traumatized.” But I wanted to know: What do actual licensed therapists think about this pervasive tendency to label basically everything and anything a trauma response?
First, what is a trauma response? Trauma is when your body learns things in a state of danger, says Chandra Ghosh, the associate director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the University of California, San Francisco. She shared a picture with me, danger personified: a little dragon with two heads. Confronted with a dragon—danger—you might run away. You might play dead. You might start punching the dragon. You might even try to soothe and reason with the dragon. These are the four F’s of trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (or tend-and-befriend, depending on who you ask—Ghosh says the research community is leaning toward tend-and-befriend, but TikTok is firmly pro-fawn). The specific number of F’s also depends on whom you’re talking to, even among licensed psychologists. But whatever you do in response to ward off the threat—it might get baked into your nervous system as a solid, worthwhile way to handle danger, and flare up even when you are relatively safe. That, broadly, is a trauma response.
Still, while broadly categorized into the F’s, the particulars of the responses vary by person. It can be “any sort of reaction” that one has as the result of going through a traumatic event, says John Donahue, an associate professor in applied behavioral sciences at the University of Baltimore. Also, people will not all experience the same events as trauma—to extend Ghosh’s dragon metaphor, a person who has been trained to handle dragons might not be traumatized by one’s presence.
If the exact definitions of “trauma” and “trauma response” are a little tricky to sum up, you might have already guessed that not every last personality trait possessed by human beings is consistently attributable to having been through a traumatic experience. “These things that get labeled as ‘trauma responses’ are just predictable responses to anxiety,” says Kathleen Smith, a therapist and writer. (She also notes that trauma is a spectrum and suggests labeling someone as having had trauma is mostly useful, from her perspective, for insurance forms.) The urge to, say, flee the room during a fight or never, ever, piss off your boss might be more deeply wired—much harder to reflect on and then shake—if it comes from a place of trauma. But just having these personality traits doesn’t mean much. “Lots of things can affect you, and not everything is trauma,” says Ghosh. Perfectionism could be a trauma response—or it could be a cultural value, or how you were raised, or even a genuinely adaptive mode to slip into for some aspects of your job.
There’s probably not much harm in mislabeling yourself as having experienced trauma, though some therapists I spoke to worried that the label might leave people with a very intense label that wasn’t true to them, which could even make them feel weird toward their families who gave them safe-but-flawed upbringings. But “if your parents had perfectionist tendencies and you want to sit in sadness with that—it’s not going to hurt you,” she says. In fact, it is possible that linking perfectionist tendencies to “trauma” in the most colloquial social alogorithm–y sense of the word could help. “A lot of things that we would do in trauma-informed treatment would be good for anyone,” says Ghosh. In the hierarchy of mental health lingo, trauma may sound more intense than mere anxiety (though who knows for how long!), but both can be bears—or relatively minor issues.
Widening the definition of trauma to encompass basically everyone can reasonably be understood as a play for relatability on an app that thrives on such. “People will be very loose and broad with how they’re defining trauma responses, in order to be broadly appealing or to get people thinking, ‘Oh that’s me,’ ” says Tanner Hoegh, a licensed counselor in Illinois, who makes videos on TikTok under the handle @tik_tok_counseling. Hoegh has a million followers on the app and has contributed his own entries to the trauma response genre. In one video labeled “The Trauma Test,” he tells viewers a simple question they can ask to tell if they have trauma: “Are you hurting?” He says that the goal of his account is to share educational materials and that he tries to describe things in broad terms to increase awareness of a variety of mental health issues—and not just of mental health issues but of the idea that whoever is viewing the video themselves deserves help.
But as ever, there are some people trying to make money off of this specific information economy: Some creators of trauma response videos are selling services claiming to help the people who they have just, in a sense, “diagnosed.” In Courtney’s bio, there’s a link to her coaching website, where she advertises sessions at an intro package rate of two for $150 for one person, or two for $200 for a couple. “Everything that you need to heal is within you,” reads the website copy (she’s the one without a license). Britt Piper offers an eight-week “intimate group coaching program” for $1,500 upfront, or eight payments of $206. A 12-week private coaching program goes for more than $3,000, but spots are filled through January.*
It is difficult for me to say that any of these individual coaches are charlatans. I spoke to both Piper and Courtney about their videos and businesses. In phone calls, both relayed more nuanced takes on trauma responses than displayed in their TikTok videos (duh, I suppose) and explained that certain behaviors are trauma responses to the extent that they are ingrained and difficult to stop. They told me that they had experienced trauma themselves and had at points in their lives felt misunderstood by the very professionals who were supposed to help them. This makes sense—culturally, and also clinically, we are still embracing the idea that women’s trauma should be taken seriously. The reason you have almost certainly heard about the fight-or-flight system, but maybe not tend-and-befriend, or fawn, is because PTSD research initially focused on men, Ghosh explained to me, and therefore missed responses that were in part borne out of the way that women are culturally primed to handle conflict.
In a way, trauma response TikTok feels like a rejoinder: We are “supposed” to be constantly polite, and yet, if we are, it might be a sign not of an intrinsic personality trait but of something that is worth interrogating. But that interrogation doesn’t need to come in the form of pseudo mental health care—shouldn’t mental health care include oversight and be set up as part of a standardized system? “If I say, ‘If you like a cheese sandwich, you might have trauma’—I can lose my license,” says Hoegh. There are no such stakes with people operating as coaches; the only means for accountability is if something they say renders them unpopular. By not-so-subtly suggesting that everyone has trauma, they are opening up their viewership and customer bases to, well, everyone. Trauma, right now, is trendy—and big, general, high-stakes trends are not just good for small-time creators but for the social media that hosts their #traumaresponse videos itself.
Correction, Oct. 6, 2021: This article originally said that Piper’s private coaching program is the same length as her group coaching program. It is four weeks longer.