Trauma Series: What Is Trauma?

One of my areas of specialty is working with individuals who have experienced trauma in their lives. I enjoy this work, in part, because I am able to witness the strength and resiliency of the human spirit. I have witnessed incredible transformation, growth, and healing in people who had previously felt stuck, isolated, angry, fearful, and hopeless.

I would like to take some time to talk about the aspects of trauma that I am most often asked about. There seems to be some misconceptions about what trauma is, and why our bodies and brains respond the way they do. Today I will address the first question: What is trauma?

The word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek word, meaning “wound.” It can certainly be a psychic or spiritual wound. Traumatic events are distressing, and overwhelm our ability to cope. Many of us have experienced some type of trauma in our lives. This does not mean that everyone develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or has a need to seek treatment for every experience. So much is dependent on individual temperament, what internal and external resources you have available to you, past traumas, and what other stressors may be going on in your life at the time. Some clients are surprised to learn that their experiences could be considered traumatic.

For the purpose of diagnosis, trauma can be defined as witnessing or experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to your physical safety. These are sometimes called big “T” traumas. This may include:

  • physical pain or injury (e.g. severe car accident)

  • serious illness

  • war

  • natural disasters

  • terrorism

  • witnessing a death

  • rape / sexual assault

  • domestic abuse

  • child abuse (verbal, physical, or sexual) or neglect

Little “t” traumas are any stressors that overwhelm your ability to cope, and continue to cause distress in your life. They may also be called adverse life experiences. They can be just as harmful as big “T” traumas due to their tendency to build up over time. Some examples of little “t” traumas include:

  • divorce

  • loss of someone close to you

  • job loss

  • an abrupt move

  • being a victim of a crime

  • oppression / discrimination (though this can be a big “T” trauma as well)

  • shame

  • prison stay

  • ending of an important relationship

  • harassment or bullying

  • ongoing emotional abuse or neglect

  • humiliation

  • being left out

  • betrayal or infidelity

  • losing a pet

Calling them little “t” traumas can be misleading, because they are not less important or detrimental than big “T” traumas. It is simply a way of differentiating between meeting criteria for diagnoses. Only you are able to determine whether or not an experience is traumatic.

I hope that you found this useful, and welcome any questions or feedback. If you are struggling and would like to learn more about how therapy can help, please contact me.

Upcoming post: How We Respond To Trauma - Signs & Symptoms…

Relevant links:

American Psychiatric Association

International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

National Center on PTSD

National Institute of Mental Health

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