Our knowledge about trauma is evolving
Many of my clients ask me about the definition of trauma. Trauma is a term that is widely used but how well do we understand what it means?
Even though I had traumatic experiences throughout my childhood, I had no idea what trauma meant when I started my healing journey. Finding an appropriate definition helped me to understand the symptoms of myself and my body and also choose the appropriate tools for my healing.
When we talk about trauma, we need to be aware that psychology and many other fields are constantly growing. Our knowledge about the human psyche has changed over the last decades and so has the definition of trauma.
In our society, there are many ideas about trauma. Some of them are outdated and some are misconceptions. One outdated definition from the 1980s is that trauma is a horrific event “beyond scope of normal human experience.” Unfortunately, traumatic events are not beyond the scope of "normal" human experience. We don’t live in the ideal world. Research shows that about 70% of people have experienced trauma. Traumatic events are part of the human experience, as painful as they are. Many people have experienced traumatic and painful events in various degrees during their childhood, adolescence, or as adults.
Current Definition of Trauma
Trauma is an injury to our emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being. If we face traumatic events, it is usually more difficult to adapt because we don’t feel safe. Trauma often corrupts our sense of inner safety and disrupts our innate capacities for resilience. As a result, our reactions become more automatic and instinctual. Trauma can happen around individuals or communities.
An Individual’s Experience Matters
We need to be aware that the event itself doesn’t determine whether something is traumatic, but the individual’s experience of the event and the meaning they make out of it. Each person will respond uniquely based on their inner and outer resources. As a result, two people may experience similar situations differently and have distinct outcomes. It doesn’t mean that one individual is “worse” or "weaker" than the other. These comparisons simplify the complex impact of overwhelming and painful events on us as human beings. It just means that there are complex interdependencies and layers, and each person can only navigate what is theirs.
Trauma is not only connected with life-threatening events
We need to be mindful that we don’t only experience trauma after a life-threatening event. The factors that make an event traumatic are the emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects the event has on the individual. We also need to be aware that an accumulation of small experiences can result in trauma and/or PTSD. This includes being the target of micro-aggressions and racism or being the target of emotionally abusive behaviours.
If something painful happens to us as children, we often don’t have the capacity to fully integrate this experience. The response from people close to us will also influence how we can integrate a traumatic event. We cope with them as well as we can because we need to survive.
“The essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves. Trauma is not terrible things that happen from the other side—those are traumatic. But the trauma is that very separation from the body and emotions.”
Which Experiences can be Traumatic?
Here is some example of experiences that can be traumatic for people:
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Adverse childhood experiences (so called ACE’)
- Experiences of racism, discrimination, and oppression
- Violence in the community, war, or terrorism.
- Witnessing violent events
- Sudden, unexplained separation from loved ones
- Other types of losses (e.g. financial, loss of an unborn child
Trauma in itself is a term that is still stigmatized in society therefore we need to be mindful that we use it in a respectful way. If we have experienced trauma, it doesn’t mean that it is a lifetime sentence. While recovery is an individual journey, we can integrate traumatic experiences with the appropriate support.
School of Public Health (2018). Trauma and its Aftermath.
Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute (2019). Strategies for resolving the impact of post-traumatic stress. [Training Workbook]
Greenwald, R. (2012). EMDR within a phase model of trauma-informed treatment. Routledge
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