Experts reveal why 'trauma dumping/' your issues on friends is toxic

Are YOU guilty of ‘trauma dumping’? Oxford University psychologist explains moaning to friends about everyday dramas can be ‘toxic’ – and reveals how to set boundaries to save your relationships

  • Psychologist & author Nelisha Wickremasinghe discusses trauma dumping 
  • Occurs when people offload small problems because they can’t process feelings 
  • Added there are ways to avoid falling victim to your friend’s trauma dumping 

A problem shared is a problem halved. But share too many problems and you could be at risk of ‘trauma dumping’, an expert has warned.  

The phrase applies to people who feel the need to offload even their smallest problems and frustrations onto others, rather than those who need to talk through genuine hardship.  

Psychologist and Oxford University associate fellow Nelisha Wickremasinghe, author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation, explained people guilty of ‘dumping’ rely on friends so heavily because they have no other way of processing their emotions. 

Speaking to FEMAIL Nelisha explained how to avoid falling victim to trauma-dumping by setting boundaries.    

Psychologist & Oxford University associate fellow Nelisha Wickremasinghe has revealed why you should never dump your problems on your friends (stock image)

Why do people ‘dump’ their trauma?  

‘People who “dump” traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy onto others – who speak and behave with “wild vulnerability” – find it very difficult to organise, process and filter their feelings appropriately.’

She said the act of trauma dumping can sometimes suggest the person is experiencing a deeper psychological problem, such as borderline personality or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, in day-to-day life, the expert said the lines are becoming blurred between what to share with a friend, and what should be kept to themselves or discussed with a professional. 

‘People are increasingly confused by culturally mixed messages regarding what and when it is OK to share,’ she said. 

‘The use of the word ‘trauma’ has also become more ‘elastic’ meaning that some people experience and describe relatively minor life challenges as ‘traumatic’.’

When ‘trauma’ isn’t trauma 

Nelisha, pictured, explained that we tend to over-share when we don’t know how to process our feelings 

Nelisha said there is a difference between trauma dumping and actual traumas people can experience after abuse of PTSD.

‘I think we need to distinguish between the two. Post traumatic stress disorder is a potentially serious problem where flashbacks and potent memories disorganize the mind and the ability to relate to others,’ she said. 

She added if someone suffers from PTSD they would need the person they are telling to make a serious effort to assist them and getting them help.   

She went on to say people should recognise an inconvenience such as queuing for petrol or missing out on a promotion is not the same as surviving rape, witnessing a murder, involvement in a fatal accident or prematurely losing a loved one.

The things people who trauma dump are likely to complain about are more in the lines of Feeling abused by a demanding boss, partner, or friend, being single, the fear of getting Covid, being unattractive, outrage when one is overlooked or not noticed, paranoid feelings that others are talking about or plotting against me, and a general attitude that the world is against me. 

Oversharing has become the norm… but it is not always a good thing 

The author said there is such a thing as oversharing, and it has become the norm.  

‘Over emoting is encouraged and has become the norm on social media and in talk and reality shows. What’s more, there’s now a mountain of self-help manuals and messages instructing us to get in touch with our feelings and tell each other about them,’ she said. 

People turn to trauma dumping because they are told that sharing how they feel is a good thing, but not told how to process their emotions.  

‘Yet in many schools and workplaces emotions and feelings are not properly attended to or nurtured, and in some places they are even discouraged,’ she said. 

‘So whilst we are told feelings are a good thing, in reality there is little opportunity to practice and learn how to express, understand and process them.’

She explained trauma dumping also was a consequence of what she calls the ‘threat brain,’ the ‘part of our emotion system that is alert to and responds to danger.’

‘An overactive threat brain will flood us with powerful feelings and thoughts which, if we do not soothe and contain them, will eventually spill out in daily life and relationships,’ she explained. 

‘Our threat brain can be activated by both real and imagined threats which is why, for some people, relatively minor problems can feel terrifying – our ability to replay, imagine and over-think makes it so.’

Why trauma dumping can be damaging for BOTH parties

‘Trauma dumping causes problems for everyone involved because highly charged speech and behaviour stimulates a part of our nervous system that floods our body with powerful hormones and chemicals to keep us hypervigilant and alert,’ she said. 

Nelisha also said it takes time to recover from discussing someone’s trauma.  

”Detoxing’ from this can take some time because of the feelings that arise after the ‘trauma binge’. 

‘For example, people often feel guilty and ashamed because they sense they have shared too much and/or embellished and exaggerated the details of their problem. 

‘They can also feel increased anxiety because the dumping ‘solution’ hasn’t taken away the pain, instead, it has supplied it with problem focused energy that keeps it ‘memory active’. Trauma dumping is like binge drinking, it might feel good in the moment but the aftereffects are lasting and painful.’

And for the person on the receiving end of a trauma dump, it is also cause for suffering.  

‘They want to help but can’t because the purpose of trauma dumping is to discharge emotions and not to work through issues. Or they feel resentful and drained by the emotional ‘bombing’ and their inability to escape it,’ Nelisha said. 

‘Friendships and partnerships thrive on reciprocity – which is mutual sharing, giving and taking. Trauma dumping on the other hand is one sided and people are used as objects upon which to project pain. 

‘When this happens the receiver can experience ‘secondary trauma’ which is a kind of emotional contagion where negative feelings become infectious.’

Are YOU likely to fall victim to trauma dumping?  

Nelisha also discussed which type of people are the most likely to fall victim to trauma dumping. 

‘If you find yourself at the receiving end of someone’s trauma dump ask yourself, ‘what is it about me that attracts or enables people to use me in this way?’,’ she said.

Three ways to say no to trauma dumping 

· Learn about your threat brain and share with your friend/partner how trauma dumping increases threat brain activity and creates anxiety and stress in both of you.

· Let your friend/partner know that when your threat brain is activated it makes trauma worse and that research shows that breathing slowly and regularly is better than talking when we are feeling fearful. Invite your friend to stop talking and to breathe – you can do this together.

Don’t see this person when you are tired or stressed. When you do see them rehearse and be prepared to say your ‘no’.

She explained people who tend to dump their traumas on others are unconsciously looking for others who came be containers for their unwanted feelings. 

‘In all of us there is a sixth sense that operates through our unconscious looking out for and connecting with people who, in different ways, enable our unconscious needs, yearnings and characteristics to be seen, heard and related to,’ Nelisha said. 

She added you have more chance of becoming a trauma dumping target if you’re a people-pleaser as well.  

‘A person who trauma dumps is unconsciously seeking people who have a stronger that average need to be liked or to please,’ she said. 

‘This need arises – again often unconsciously – from a a fear of being rejected or of being unloveable. It comes from a belief, learned in early childhood, that we can secure love and safety by being good, compliant and submissive to others,’ she added. 

And in the same way the way we react to perceived danger can influence how we dump our problems on others, the way we react to danger also influence how likely we are to react to people dumping their problems on you.  

‘If you find it difficult to stop your friend or partner dumping on you, you may have this tendency which comes from the ‘freeze’ part of our flight-flee-freeze threat brain response repertoire,’ Nelisha explained. 

‘Whilst animals literally freeze by remaining still, humans freeze their own needs and beliefs so that they can fully focus on the other person – which feels like the safest thing to when we experience fear,’ she went on. 

She said that such brain strategies, which include fighting, fleeing and freezing are rarely used to support good relationships and cannot help a friend that’s trauma dumping either. 

‘Discovering that you may be caught in a threat brain ‘freeze’ loop is your first step in learning how to deal with people who take advantage of you,’ she said.  

‘Ask yourself: ‘what did I do as a child to secure approval, attention and love from my parents?’ and consider where you fall on the continuum from submissive (e.g. people pleasing) to dominant (.e.g competitive and achievement oriented). 

‘Then taking small steps towards compassionate assertion can help. This means learning to say no in a non-defensive way,’ she added. 

 

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