What is Trauma?
The word “trauma” can be defined both as a distressing event as well as the emotional effects that the distressing event has on us. A traumatic event is one in which a person experiences a situation which is physically or emotionally harmful, even life-threatening. A key ingredient of a traumatic event is that it contains a “power differential” whereby we are made to feel helpless in response to a person, event, or force of nature (SAMHSA, 2014). As a result of the traumatic event and the ensuing emotional response, we can have lasting effects that may negatively impact our functioning on a mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual level.
Three Types of Trauma
Traumatic events can be singular, repeated, or chronic. Singular, acute events occur at a specific point in time, such as a car accident, assault, break-in, or sudden death of a loved one. They are time limited and there is a clear beginning and end to the event.
Repeated traumas mean that a person is exposed to multiple, consecutive traumatic situations, which can be separated by any amount of time, even years. Repeated traumas could be events such as repeated assaults, repeatedly being called upon by someone in crisis, or repeated exposure to violence such as in war or combat. The consecutive events can be unrelated as well, such as losing a loved one, experiencing a natural disaster, and being mugged.
The third type of trauma is chronic, meaning that a traumatic situation can become a sustained experience over time. This can occur with repeated physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect during childhood, or being in a violent relationship.
Sometimes we can recover from a single trauma without mental health intervention. Yet each time we experience trauma and we don’t recover, it creates a greater vulnerability to being overwhelmed by future traumas.
Trauma responses not only can include immediate reactions (such as shock, denial, grief, or dissociation), but also long-lasting effects (such as flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, mood swings, avoidance, shame, guilt, extreme vulnerability, fear, or helplessness). Our experience of a traumatic event may even change the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world. For example, we may come to believe that people can’t be trusted or that the world cannot be trusted and that we are not fundamentally safe.
We as humans are wired for survival, and if we are placed in a situation where we feel threatened in some way, our brain and body will do everything it can to avoid experiencing that level of helplessness or fear ever again. Unfortunately, we usually end up reliving the trauma when confronting cues in the environment that trigger that sense of helplessness, or having debilitating avoidance of anything that reminds us of that threat.
When trauma is not resolved, it is almost as though we get stuck in the middle of our initial response to the trauma itself, and we never really fully feel safe, even when the danger is gone. “Traumatized individuals are stuck in chronic contraction; in this state of fixity, it seems to them like nothing will ever change” (Levine, 2015, pg. 55). When we feel “nothing will ever change,” it creates a feeling of hopelessness. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to seek treatment, because you can heal from trauma!
When to Seek Treatment
While it’s true that not everyone who experiences a traumatic situation will experience long-term adverse effects or need the help of a therapist to recover, there can be a lot of benefit to processing, grieving, and returning to a state of balance with the help of a trained therapist after a traumatic, disruptive life event. Especially when trauma has been repeated or chronic, there is a higher probability that you will experience long term adverse impacts on your mood, relationships, or self-image.
Individuals struggling with repeated embodied reminders of the hopelessness they experienced during the traumatic event may be subject to acquiring coping mechanisms that are ineffective in the long-term and potentially harmful, such as substance or alcohol abuse, chronic distraction, avoidance, or impulsive behavior. This makes it even more important to seek support.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 2, Trauma Awareness. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207203/
Levine, P. (2015). Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past. North Atlantic Books.
SAHMSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. (July 2014). SAHMSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/userfiles/files/SAMHSA_Trauma.pdf
Trauma. (2021). American Psychological Association. Retrieved on September 14th, 2021 from https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma.