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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Letterman

Thoughts from This Therapist: What is Trauma?

The works in this series will always be the opinion of the writer (me, Rebecca). Therapy and healing is not a one-size-fits-all box, so keep that in mind when reading. Everything in this series will come from my experiences both as a therapist and patient. I hope it gives you insight into different perspectives, and gives me a place to share thoughts on topics I feel are important. Enjoy!

NOTE: This post is an in-depth discussion of the definition of trauma, complete with examples. As such, it may be triggering to some folks. Keep that in mind when deciding to read— there’s nothing wrong with putting it down and coming back later.

Trauma is a small word with a big impact on people’s lives. I am going to start out sharing some definitions that I have found for the meaning of trauma. Then I will go on to explain not only those definitions, but also my personal definition of trauma. I will give specific examples of different traumatic experiences. This is a tough topic, but it is also important to have an understanding of what trauma means in order for us to really explore it.

To start defining trauma, let’s look at what some dictionaries have to say. Merriam Webster defines trauma as “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time”. breaks trauma down between pathology and psychiatry, with their psychiatry definition being “an experience that produces psychological injury or pain.” Cambridge Dictionary defines trauma as a “severe and lasting emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience, or a case of such shock happening.”

Now let’s look at some definitions from different organizations of mental health professionals. The American Psychological Association (APA) says “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” Unyte-ILs states that “Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.” defines trauma as “going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events.”

As you can see, each of these definitions is different, with some similarities. The reality is that you can also talk to different professionals about their definition of trauma and you will probably hear different things. Trauma is not easy to define in a succinct way because of how complex it is.

I define trauma simply as an event/situation/experience that causes strong emotional reactions, often having long-term impacts on one’s life. That’s the simplest way I know how to define trauma. The catch is that it is so much more complicated than that. Like therapy, clothes, and career choices, trauma is not a one-size-fits-all type of thing. Trauma is different for everyone and yet the same for some, and there are often underlying similarities.

In my opinion trauma is all about perception. How did you perceive the event that took place? Were you scared for your life? DId you believe you were going to die? Did you feel safe and happy? In the moment, what was your reaction? The answers to these questions help determine whether something was traumatic for you or not.

The biggest thing to remember is that just because one person felt something was traumatic, that doesn’t mean another person did. I will talk more about this specifically when I address “Trauma is a Spectrum Not a Scale” in two weeks. But for now I will go into some examples of trauma.

Oftentimes when we first think about trauma we think about war injuries, rape, kidnapping, and physical abuse. Those are all great examples of trauma. Along with that, neglect of any kind is also trauma. Death can be very traumatic for people. Divorce for kids, and even sometimes the adults, can be traumatic.

Systemic racism is a trauma. What we are living through with COVID19 is a collective trauma. Bullying, verbal abuse, and cyberbullying can all be traumas. Homophobia, transphobia, heteronormativity, and anything that judges a person based on who they are can be a trauma. The fear of the political environment can be a trauma.

As you can hopefully see, anything can be a trauma. Trauma is all about the impact that an event/situation/experience has on a person. The list is endless on what can be traumatic, and almost everyone has experienced trauma at some point in their life.

Trauma is a tough topic to talk about, and its definitions are often very complex. It is also complex in how we live with it and treat it. I hope that these definitions have helped you to see how in-depth trauma can be, so that you can further explore what trauma means to you.

Do you have other definitions of trauma you’d like to share? More questions about what trauma is? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know by leaving a comment below or tagging us on social media (@therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram and @llctherapeutic on Twitter).

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