You’re misusing the term ‘trauma bonded’

In another chapter of internet therapist speak, experts say the way ‘trauma bonding’ is used is misguided

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 14, 2023 5:15AM (EDT)

Mental Thread Tangled Knotted (Getty Images/solidcolours)
Mental Thread Tangled Knotted (Getty Images/solidcolours)

Recently, a former Starbucks barista on TikTok described her employment experience as "lowkey" just "trauma bonding." From dealing with "Karens" to rushing multiple drink orders or receiving requests like a breakfast sandwich as "extra toasted," there's no question that — as previously reported by the Guardian — many Starbucks employees have struggled working in a fast-paced environment that's understaffed while facing verbal abuse from customers. But is that technically "trauma bonding"?

Describing a workplace as "trauma bonding" isn't unique to this one TikTok video. The hashtag #traumabonding on TikTok has 206.2 million views. Another popular TikTok that recently went viral showed Kelly Ripa saying "work friends are crucial for your health," to which a TikTocker interjects and says: "It's called trauma bonding." In the comments section, people note that the "worse the job, the better the friends." Over the last five years, the search term "trauma bonding" has increased steadily in Google searches.

The term "trauma bond" was first coined by Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), in 1997. In the paper, Carnes used it to describe the bond that is formed between an abuser and a non-abuser which creates a dysfunctional attachment style.

"What we see is highly addictive attachment to the persons who have hurt the clients," Carnes explained. "The clients may even blame themselves, their defects, their failed efforts. The clients strive to do better as their lives slip away amongst all the intensity."

Carnes said that this "highly addictive attachment" to the abuser is most likely to be experienced in domestic violence, dysfunctional marriages, religious abuse, cults and workplace exploitation. Today, therapists say that "trauma bonding" is most commonly used in clinical settings when referring to domestic abuse — and that it's misguided to use it as a way to describe a bonding that happens in the workplace under capitalism. 

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

"Trauma bonding is what happens when a person has been in an abusive relationship and they feel the need to go back to the relationship, even though they've been highly abused," Dr. Joy Berkheimer, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) told Salon. "They're in this cycle of the person pretty much professing their love and having them come back, even though they've been mistreated, even though they've been treated poorly."

"Trauma bonding is what happens when a person has been in an abusive relationship and they feel the need to go back to the relationship."

Berkheimer said when this happens, a person's body goes through a "withdrawal," as if a person was addicted to a drug. "Your body is almost telling you, the pain will go away if we just get one more hit," Berkheimer said. "Your body is reacting so strongly." Berkheimer added one difference between trauma bonding and Stockholm syndrome, which is when a victim identifies with and empathizes with their captor or abuser, is that the person experiencing trauma bonding knows that they are surviving abuse. "It's so blatant in your face that being there is dangerous," she said.

Psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon that the misuse of the term "trauma bonding" is an unintended consequence of heavy social media use, where people tend to casually toss around mental health diagnoses and even provide ways to "diagnose themselves." 

"Unfortunately, the trend of overusing or misusing terms such as 'trauma bonding' dilutes the meaning and significance of serious mental health concerns," Manly said. "For example, when people on TikTok casually state that they are 'trauma bonded' with their coworkers due to employment issues, they are unknowingly using a term that is intended to describe a relationship where a victim is bonded to a perpetrator who has engaged in repeated, cyclical abuse."

Indeed, Manly pointed out that a trauma-bonded victim can become "deeply attached to the abuser in ways that defy rationality" — perhaps not someone who would go ahead and vent about it on social media.

"The trend of overusing or misusing terms such as 'trauma bonding' dilutes the meaning and significance of serious mental health concerns."

Berkheimer said people are likely using the term to describe a state of survival from something — like how people survived the pandemic. "But that's not really the clinical definition of trauma bonding," she said. "I guess you could be closer together if you all had to survive something together, you all had to watch something atrocious, but it's not the clinical terminology for it."

There is a sociological term to describe the bonding people feel after surviving a disaster, like a wildfire or hurricane, and how those affected often feel a unique sense of togetherness that they don't experience in everyday life, which usually results in an abundance of altruistic behaviors. This collective sense of belonging can become something that people are reminiscent of years later, despite it being placed against the backdrop of horrific tragedy. This is called bounded solidarity, and sociologists pin the origins of it to "The Communist Manifesto" by German philosopher Karl Marx.

But in terms of trauma bonding in the workplace, therapists see this on the same plane as people overusing the word "depressed," "anxious," or "trauma."

"As with other terms such as 'depression' and 'trauma' that are frequently misused or overused, the frivolous use of serious psychological terms harms our appreciation of — and ability to support — those who truly suffer from mental health concerns," Manly said. "Although popular culture doesn't intend to disparage or undermine those with mental health issues, it's important for society as a whole to wake up to the significant downside of using serious mental health terms lightly and loosely."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

MORE FROM Nicole Karlis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Deep Dive Mental Health Ptsd Reporting Social Media Trauma Workplace Drama