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A lot of people seem to have a hard time understanding how psychological trauma affects us.  So here's a thought experiment that might help - replace "trauma," or any more specific terms (e.g. "abuse," "assault," etc) with "spiders."  Or if you like spiders, pick a different animal that creeps you out.  But for this thread, I'm going to stick with spiders.

So what does this mean?  To start with, if someone has been bitten by a spider in the past, they're probably going to be more paranoid about spiders in the future.  It will vary from person to person, but this is broadly what you can expect.  They've learned that the world is dangerous, in a much more direct way than you or I might understand it, and they're going to do whatever they think they need to in order to keep themselves safe.  And this can come out in lots of ways.

Some people will always be on the lookout for spiders, or evidence of spiders, or warning signs of spiders coming.  Some people will refuse to go to places where they've seen spiders before, or to do things that they were doing when they encountered spiders.  Some will go to desperate lengths to forget that spiders ever existed.  Whatever it takes to keep themselves feeling safe, whether or not it makes sense to an outside observer.

Some people will insist that spiders don't bother them, that they are too tough to be affected by their past spider bites, too tough to be unsafe regardless of what they might have experienced in the past.  So much so that they may fly into a rage if anyone suggests that spiders have been a problem for them, or if they encounter reminders of those spiders that absolutely didn't affect them.

And those "reminders" can take lots of different forms.  Spidery shapes.  Webs.  Spiderman movies.  An itchy or stinging sensation that sorta kinda resembles being bitten.  The number 8.  The spiderized imagination knows no bounds.

Where it *really* gets tricky is that these behaviors don't always look like they're about spiders.  Someone loses their temper at the drop of a hat, and everyone says they're a bully, or a thug.  No one notices the spider reminders that this person is seeing.  A kid can't sit still in class, they're always antsy, always uncomfortable.  People say the kid is disobedient, or maybe has ADHD.  It's possible.  Or maybe they just haven't recovered yet from the latest spider bite.  Remember, it's about looking for danger and keeping it at bay, whatever it takes.

There is one more facet worth discussing here.  Well, three really, but they overlap.  1) spiders are a lot more common than most people realize if you're not immersed in this; 2) you can't tell who has had to deal with spiders just by looking at them; and 3) there are many different species of spiders, and just because someone else's spider doesn't look like yours doesn't make it any less of a spider.

The last thing I really want you to understand here is that people who have been badly affected by spiders can recover, but for many it's a long process.  How much support they do or don't get from those around them makes a big difference.  Shaming or criticizing them for the way they react to getting bitten, or for having gotten bitten in the first place, is guaranteed to make things worse.  But having people around them who understand that spider bites hurt, and that this hurt can last a long time, will go a long way toward helping them to feel safer and to find healthier, more realistic ways to leave those spiders in the past.


Infinite thanks to my colleague Alexandra Chicaleski, LSW, who inadvertently inspired this whole "spiders" idea while describing a metaphor she had used with one of her clients.

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