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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stefanie Tweedly

What is trauma?

There is a difficulty inherent in defining trauma, as what is traumatic to one, may not be traumatic to another. However, one common denominator in all experiences of trauma is the shattering of one's sense of safety. Additionally, all trauma alters one's view of the world, others, and themselves.

One common denominator in all experiences of trauma is the shattering of our sense of safety. Additionally, all trauma alters our view of the world, others, and ourselves.

Over the years, and with much effort, our understanding of trauma and its impact has grown. While humans have always recognized people sometimes experience horrific things, we have not always recognized these horrors could cause lasting disturbance. In this article, we will begin to explore how we define trauma.

While you may expect a clear, concise definition, the truth is trauma is anything but clear and concise. Very broadly defined, trauma is the direct or indirect experiencing of something terrible. It is important to note here that one does not have to directly experience the event for it to be traumatizing; for example, consider the child whose parent died in a car accident while the child was at school. Whether directly or indirectly experienced, this definition leaves us with questions such as how terrible and what kind of terrible is necessary for something to be deemed a trauma. The answers to these questions depend on a variety of factors, such as how the individual experienced the event, past experiences, personality, the nature of the event, etc. What is traumatic for some, may not be for others. Furthermore, for some the experience of trauma will lead to lasting struggles, for others it will not.

As you can see, it’s easy to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole when trying to define trauma. However, it’s important to peek into the rabbit hole not only to understand why it’s taken years to gain a better understanding of what trauma is, but also to understand why so many people struggle to understand what they are experiencing. More often than not, civilian patients come into my office and proclaim “well it’s not like I went to war” when asked if they’ve experienced trauma. Most people readily view combat as traumatic in nature, though veterans often deny the traumatic nature of their combat experiences because “someone else had it worse.” This minimization of one’s experience is a common phenomenon among survivors of trauma, in part because it is difficult to acknowledge the full extent of the horror that was experienced.

All that being said, let’s pull back from the rabbit hole and explore the idea of simple and complex trauma; concepts that in recent years have been identified in order to facilitate a better understanding of trauma. Simple trauma is the experience of a distinct disturbing event. Examples of simple trauma include a single sexual assault, car accident, earthquake, etc. Complex trauma, on the other hand, is the experience of multiple traumas over the course of time, which most often include an interpersonal component. Typically, complex trauma begins in childhood; however, it is possible to experience complex trauma with origins in adulthood. Examples of complex trauma include multiple incidents of sexual abuse/assault, emotional abuse, severe neglect, physical abuse, violence in one’s community, etc. All trauma has a few things in common. One of these commonalities in all experiences of trauma is the shattering of one’s sense of safety. As humans we begin by navigating the world with some sense that we are safe in general (which presents different based on life stage); however, traumatic experiences are by definition unsafe, hence they shatter one’s sense of safety. Additionally, all trauma alters one’s view of the world, others, and themselves. The world and others become unsafe, relatedly the ability to trust tends to diminish or cease, and the individual deems themselves inadequate or helpless. Some people are able to process the experience and heal with the support of friends and loved ones, others need the assistance and support of a psychologist or mental health profession in their process of healing.

In future articles, I will discuss related topics, such as the impact of trauma, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, posttraumatic growth, and healing from trauma. It is important to note that if you have experienced trauma, development of struggles or symptoms not previously there and/or seeking therapy is not a sign of weakness. There are a variety of reasons one may struggle to process and heal from trauma, not the least of which is they experienced trauma. It is a sign of strength and courage to recognize when we need help as we work toward better being…and we all need help at times.

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