A problem shared is a problem halved.
It’s not something you hear very often these days, but its meaning remains as clear as ever: sharing our concerns, worries, or difficulties with someone willing to listen and provide empathy can lead to a sense of relief and a fresh perspective. This pithy phrase is invoked to highlight the power of communication and the potential benefits of seeking help and support from others when facing challenges.
What this saying doesn’t convey is that there may be an eventual limit to how much empathizing someone can feasibly perform without feeling overwhelmed by someone else’s problems—particularly when the offload is unsolicited. In 2017 or so, somebody came up with a catchy descriptor for when that limit is passed: “trauma dumping.”
While the recipient of a trauma dump may experience vicarious trauma, feel overwhelmed, or develop a sense of guilt for not being able to provide the support the trauma dumper seeks, a consistent urge to trauma dump may, in some cases, be a symptom of a serious mental health condition that affects around eight million people in the US alone: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
This article aims to drill down on why trauma dumping happens, the common forms it takes, the potential impact on both parties involved, and how to figure out whether frequent trauma dumping may be a compulsion that’s a sign of a distressing but highly treatable mental disorder.
What underlies trauma dumping?
There are several reasons why people engage in trauma dumping that don’t necessarily indicate that they’re experiencing any mental health issue at all. They might include:
Need for validation and support: People who have experienced trauma often feel a strong need for validation and support from others. By sharing their experiences, they seek acknowledgment and empathy, hoping that someone will understand and provide comfort.
Desire to be heard: Traumatic or stressful experiences can be emotionally overwhelming, and sharing them with others can provide relief. It allows people to externalize their feelings, reducing the burden and creating space for healing.
Seeking connection and understanding: Trauma can often make people feel isolated and disconnected. They may hope to find others with similar experiences by sharing their stories, fostering a sense of belonging and understanding.
Attempting to process their experiences: Talking about traumatic events can be a way for individuals to make sense of their experiences and make progress in their healing journey. Verbalizing their thoughts and feelings may help them gain clarity and perspective on what they’ve been through.
Difficulty in managing emotions: Trauma and difficult circumstances can lead to intense emotions that are challenging to handle alone. Sharing these emotions with someone else may provide temporary relief and a sense of emotional release.
All of these reasons are human, valid, and normal. But as mentioned at the start, what sets trauma dumping apart from usual commiseration is its relentlessness and one-sidedness.
With trauma dumping, there are no winners
When we think about a trauma dump in progress, our sympathies might lie with the recipient. That’s just what the term is meant to convey: they didn’t ask for a download, but they’re barraged anyway. As much as people on the receiving end may want to help lighten a friend or family member’s load, they can feel overwhelmed, powerless to help, or even triggered in their own right.
However, the person doing the dumping might not be getting anything out of it either. In fact, it could make their own situation worse, given that excessive or repetitive exposure to traumatic content can retraumatize the person sharing their experiences when it’s not done in an intentional or controlled manner. That means it can hinder their healing process, particularly if they meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which we’ll discuss in more detail in a moment.
First, let’s talk about how trauma dumping may sometimes be a symptom of OCD.
Trauma dumping. Could it be a compulsion?
OCD is a serious mental health disorder. While it’s often portrayed as a rather trivial preoccupation with cleanliness or order, it can take many forms that are highly distressing, often debilitating, and sometimes even deadly.
OCD often starts with a random, unwanted, intrusive thought. Pretty much everybody has these kinds of thoughts from time to time. Here’s an example: Someone—let’s call them Charlotte—could be getting ready to go out with their partner and think about how easily they could throw their hair dryer into the bathtub while he’s showering. Roughly 98% of people would be able to shrug off a thought like that in seconds. For the 1-2% of people with OCD, however, dismissing an intrusive thought like that is incredibly difficult. They’ll try to assign meaning to it and begin to wonder whether having such a thought means they could do such a thing. In short order, it would consume them with worry and fear, feeling an urgent need to answer their doubts. That’s when it becomes an obsession.
Obsessions provoke untenable distress and anxiety, and to reduce that anxiety, people with OCD will engage in physical or mental behaviors known as compulsions. In the example of Charlotte—the person obsessing over their thought about electrocuting their partner—a compulsion might be to dry their hair in another room, institute a policy of not getting ready at the same time, or forgo the hair dryer altogether and use a towel instead, even though it takes ten times longer.
These are all examples of compulsive avoidance, giving Charlotte a sense of relief from their anxiety. However, the relief Charlotte gets from doing these compulsions is only temporary. In fact, engaging in any compulsion will reinforce a repetitive sequence of obsessions, anxiety, compulsions, and fleeting relief known as the “OCD cycle.”
So, what does that have to do with trauma dumping? Well, avoidance is just one of many, many types of compulsion. Another common one is reassurance-seeking, and for people with OCD, that’s what trauma dumping can be.
Sticking with the same example, imagine that Charlotte meets with their closest friend Leah to tell her about those intrusive thoughts and images about electrocuting their partner. At first, Leah says she’s certain that Charlotte could never do such a thing, but that’s not enough to quell the obsessions. OCD demands certainty. That’s what it does.
Every time they meet, Charlotte unloads to Leah about their anxiety and endless worry, sharing vivid descriptions of the images that come night and day. Again, Leah reassures Charlotte that they could never act upon these thoughts. By the end of each time they get together, Charlotte’s anxiety is temporarily reduced, Leah is emotionally drained, and yet another three-hour session of two old friends hanging out is reduced to a trauma dump.
It gets so bad that Leah—who is as in the dark about Charlotte’s OCD as Charlotte is—avoids meeting up altogether, coming up with excuses why she can’t make their usual dates. Without Leah around as much, Charlotte is left feeling isolated and all the more consumed with worry, unaware that undiagnosed OCD is likely treatable in a matter of weeks, is covered by many health insurance plans, and can be done from the comfort of their own home.
Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) for OCD
OCD was first described as a distinct condition in the 1870s. Around 100 years later, an effective therapy for OCD was developed to manage the condition. As the name suggests, exposure and response prevention therapy involves being exposed to the things that trigger your obsessions while resisting the urge to engage in your usual compulsions.
At the beginning of this highly effective approach, a specially trained therapist will explain the mechanisms of OCD and how it shows up in people. They’ll then work with you to create a hierarchy of situations that trigger your obsessions and compulsions—if trauma dumping is acting as a compulsion, these could include anything that makes you feel a need to be reassured by others. In subsequent sessions, the therapist will gradually expose you to these triggers while encouraging you not to engage in compulsions like reassurance-seeking and trauma dumping. Over time, you’ll put together a sort of toolkit that you can use outside of your sessions to manage your OCD symptoms and regain control of your life.
Unlike any other approach, ERP treats OCD’s root cause. Improved outcomes are seen in up to 80% of people who undergo this “gold standard” treatment. All of the therapists at NOCD are specially trained in treating OCD with ERP. A growing number are also trained in a type of ERP-related treatment called prolonged exposure therapy (PE), an effective form of treatment for PTSD.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD (PE)
PE aims to reduce the distress and avoidance associated with traumatic memories by gradually exposing the individual to those memories in a safe and controlled way.
During PE, the therapist helps the person recount the traumatic event(s) in detail, encouraging them to confront their memories, thoughts, and emotions associated with that trauma. This exposure can occur through imaginary exposure (revisiting the event in their mind) or in vivo exposure (confronting trauma-related situations or triggers in real life). Through repeated and prolonged exposure, the individual gradually learns that the distress and anxiety associated with the traumatic memories decrease over time.
PE and ERP both work by exposing people to feared or distressing situations, but PE specifically targets traumatic memories and their associated emotions.
Research has shown that PE can be highly effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD and related disorders. It helps individuals confront and process their traumatic experiences, decreasing avoidance behaviors, intrusive thoughts, and emotional distress. However, the effectiveness of PE can vary for each person, and it is important to work with a trained therapist to ensure the therapy is tailored to a person’s unique needs and circumstances.
The co-occurrence of OCD and trauma
We’d be remiss not to address that trauma and OCD co-occur at a very high rate.
One study that looked at OCD and PTSD found that the conditions co-occur between 19% and 31% of the time. Other studies have found that 54% of people diagnosed with OCD have experienced one or more traumatic life events, and between 30% to 82% of those diagnosed with OCD have a trauma history.
Trauma can contribute to the development of intrusive thoughts, heightened anxiety, and a sense of loss of control, which are core features of OCD. The distressing nature of trauma can lead individuals to engage in compulsive behaviors or mental rituals to cope with the anxiety and regain a sense of security. These rituals may serve as attempts to prevent or neutralize perceived threats associated with the traumatic event.
Therapists must recognize the relationship between trauma and OCD, as it can impact the course and treatment of both conditions. That’s where therapists who have specialty training in these conditions can help.
Start getting better today
All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training, and an increasing number can also treat PTSD with PE in people who suffer with both conditions.
If you think you might have OCD or a trauma-related disorder like PTSD and want to learn how it’s treated with exposure-based therapy, schedule a free 15-minute call with the NOCD Care team to learn more about how we can help you get your life back on track.