May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This topic has been cooking in my brain (and my drafts) for quite some time, so I figured now is as good a time as any to finally open this can of worms and talk about something I don’t hear about often enough during these conversations: Delayed Emotional Response (DER) and minimizing trauma.
// TW: Sexual assault, narcissistic grooming, abuse, mental illness.
Part 1: The First Trauma
When I was sexually assaulted during the summer of 2009, it took me sixteen months to realize I had been raped.
That day, I went home in my blood-soaked jeans feeling absolutely sick, but I didn’t know why. The guy called my house afterward (we were friends before it happened) and the last thing he said before he hung up was “we should do that again sometime.” My heart sank, but I didn’t know why. Somehow, my mom knew something was off. She gently questioned me until I finally admitted I had sex. As soon as the words left my mouth, I burst into tears, but I didn’t know why. I knew I was releasing something, but I had no idea what it was.
After that day, I continued to be good friends with my rapist. In fact, I was completely infatuated with him. Looking back, continuing to hang out with him (along with the poisonous seeds of gossip he had been planting behind my back to our friends the entire time) probably contributed to the backlash I endured when I finally spoke up against him.
During those sixteen months, I was spiraling. I acted out against my parents, which was out of character for me. I started drinking and smoking weed to numb the unexplainable feeling that was festering in my gut. I rapidly lost a ton of weight from stress and began self-harming. All the while, I had no idea what was causing my mental health to deteriorate.
When I finally realized I had gone through something traumatic, it hit me like a freight train. I went into full-blown PTSD, jumping when I was touched unexpectedly and having visceral flashbacks and nightmares that left me sleep deprived. I was accused of lying and begging for attention because I had seemingly gone from perfectly fine to a hot mess overnight, over something that had happened more than a year prior.
I knew how it looked, which made me feel guilty on top of everything else. I was just as confused as they were, and began to wonder if perhaps it was my fault after all. Was I faking? Was I even raped at all?
Part 2: Delayed Emotional Response (DER)
In 2012 when I finally sought professional help for my mental health, my therapist helped me realize that because my sexual assault didn’t align with my own preconceived definition of ‘trauma,’ I simply refused to consciously perceive it that way. Subconsciously, however, my brain knew exactly what had happened… which was why I was showing signs of trauma despite not actively realizing it.
She also said it may have been my own brain dissociating to protect me. Dr. Roland Bal, whose research focuses on Complex Trauma and PTSD, calls this phenomenon Delayed Emotional Response (DER). DER is a form of long-term dissociation that occurs when your brain becomes so overwhelmed, it just “checks out” until it decides you’re safe enough to process the trauma. This could happen weeks, months or even years later.
When I realized I’d essentially been hoodwinked by my own brain, I was pissed. I felt betrayed, and I resolved never to let it happen again. Little did I know, the thing that makes DER so insidious is how easily it can become habitual.
Dr. Bal says although you may not even know you’ve been traumatized, when you experience DER your brain’s “window of tolerance” for dealing with stress is reduced because your brain is attempting to work through the trauma on a subconscious level. So, if you experience anything that puts too much stress on your brain in the meantime, you’ll be more likely to dissociate again. Eventually, DER becomes a conditioned response, which manifests in chronic avoidant behaviour.
But I didn’t know that at the time. So, when I experienced DER again as an adult, years later, I was totally blindsided.
Part 3: The Second Trauma
One day in 2019, I was sitting on the edge of my bed playing my guitar when my brain suddenly decided it was time for me to deal with another trauma that had been lurking silently beneath the surface. I put my guitar down and cried for hours, and I’ve rarely picked it up since.
For about five years on and off (beginning when I was 16/17) I experienced narcissistic grooming from someone twice my age. Of course, I didn’t know what narcissistic grooming was at the time. In fact, I initiated the relationship in the first place. I thought I knew what I wanted. I considered myself to be basically an adult, so I obviously knew what I was doing. I was in complete control of the situation, right? Wrong.
Even after I finally saw past my own blinders and forced myself to detach (years later), I was still unknowingly living in the reality my abuser had constructed for me. I fully believed everything that happened was my own fault. After all, I had started it, which they made sure to remind me… often. In the heat of our final argument, they told me there was nothing between us and that I had imagined everything. For whatever reason, I believed them.
They made me out to be obsessive and mentally unstable. I had become obsessive and mentally unstable, but it was because they had orchestrated things to be that way by pushing me away and reeling me back in repeatedly until I literally felt crazy. They made the choice to accept the advances of an impressionable (not to mention mentally ill) underage girl, and made her the villain? How did I not see it sooner?
When I realized years of secrecy, manipulation, emotional abuse and gaslighting had somehow flown completely under my radar and I’d once again been tricked by my own brain, I was furious. I wrote an open letter to my abuser that I considered publishing, but when I sent it to a friend they told me it felt too unresolved – and that’s because it was. I couldn’t write about my trauma as if I had come out stronger on the other side, because I hadn’t yet. I was trying to tie a nice little bow around something that I had only just recognized as trauma.
Part 3: Minimizing Trauma
This is where minimizing trauma comes in. Trauma minimization is exactly what it sounds like: the act of invalidating, dismissing, belittling or making light of a traumatic event that has affected you psychologically. It can happen as a result of shame, denial or (in my case) manipulation.
According to a blog post by the Yellowbrick Psychiatric Centre, trauma minimization happens so often partly because there is such a broad range of experiences that can qualify as traumatic. Any event that leaves you feeling frightened and isolated enough to interfere with your life going forward is considered psychologically traumatic; this can be anything from a single powerful event (like a serious injury or sexual assault) to a series of stressful experiences (like long-term abuse or being deployed in a military conflict).
Khiron Clinics, a trauma clinic based in the UK, say in a blog post that trauma minimization not only hinders your healing progress, but it can actually cause further damage to your mental health – this is because “you won’t be healing from your own truth, rather you will be trying to heal a minimised [SIC] sense of what happened.”
Part 4: It Gets Better
Even now, I don’t think I’ve unpacked everything I was put through. I’m still angry. I’m still resentful. I’m still deprogramming and unlearning the unhealthy coping mechanisms I developed to protect myself. But, slowly but surely, I’m making progress. Most importantly, I’ve now realized that I’ve been carrying a burden that wasn’t mine to carry in the first place. I fully believed that I had overreacted, and what I went through “wasn’t that bad.” But it was that bad. I didn’t imagine it and what happened to me was not my fault.
If anything I’ve written here resonates with you, you could be either experiencing DER, minimizing your own trauma or a combination of both. According to my former therapist, the two do tend to go hand in hand. If that’s the case, I encourage you to reach out to a professional and seek help. The first step (and often the most difficult) in healing is recognizing that there’s a problem in the first place. Take it from someone who understands: your experiences and emotions are valid. I see you, and I’m here for you. It does get better, I promise.
© Victoria St. Michael 2021
- HEALTHLINE: 12 Signs You’ve Experienced Narcissistic Abuse (Plus How to Get Help)
- TERI MURPHY THERAPY: The Hidden Language of Narcissists: How They Manipulate and Traumatize Their Victims
- WOMEN AGAINST CRIME: How to Identify Grooming and What to Do if You See It
- ROSGLAS RECOVERY: Signs and Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
- PSYCHOLOGY TODAY CANADA: 3 Ways to Spot a Narcissist
- VERY WELL MIND: How to Recognize Someone With Covert Narcissism
- FRONTIERS IN PSYCHOLOGY: Childhood Trauma and Minimization/Denial in People with and without a Severe Mental Disorder
- MESSY MIND (MEDIUM): It Wasn’t That Bad: How minimizing my trauma sabotaged my healing
- PROSPECT THERAPY: Three Ways You Might be Minimizing Your Trauma
- HEALTHY PLACE: Stop Minimizing Your Trauma to Start Healing from PTSD
- NCBI: Immediate and Delayed Reactions to Trauma
- VERY WELL MIND: Delayed-Onset PTSD Symptoms
- VALIANT LIVING RESTORATIONS THERAPY: The Delayed Onset of Trauma