Understanding Trauma Pt. 1: What is Trauma?

By Caroline Sweatt-Eldredge, MA, LPC

Over the next few weeks on the blog, we will be posting a series about understanding trauma. As a trauma-informed care community, we take seriously our commitment to understand the impact of trauma in all the work we do. We believe that understanding trauma can be the first step toward healing—whether that means helping to heal your children or yourself.

All of this leads us to today’s primary question: What is trauma, anyway?

Maybe you’ve heard about trauma from a television show or movie, and you know that many veterans experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Or, maybe you are parenting a child from a hard place and “trauma” seems to be a buzzword that is just about everywhere these days. Maybe you’ve described a really awful situation as “traumatic,” even though you weren’t entirely sure what that means.

When we say trauma, what we are really talking about is being exposed to or experiencing some sort of stressful event that creates an intense emotional response, such as fear, helplessness, or horror. Because of the intensity of this stressful event, our lives have been changed as a result. The way we define the world around us (or even our own identity) has shifted.

Trauma impacts us across time, including our past, present, and future. Essentially, we can re-experience thoughts, feelings, and sensations leftover from the past event in the present moment. This can shape our decision-making or make us feel limited, thus impacting our future. For example, someone who has been in a car wreck in the past may continue to feel unsafe or anxious while driving even though they are not in danger in the present moment. Because of this, they may avoid driving and limit their mobility and options in the future, turning down opportunities that could benefit them.

Want to experience this for yourself? Think of a time when you felt frustrated or anxious. Make sure it was just a relatively minor annoyance—there’s no need to get really worked up to participate in this activity. As you think about or picture this frustration or anxiety-provoking situation, notice how you feel in your body. Do you feel any tension? Breathing changes? A sinking feeling in your stomach? Even though you are not currently in the frustrating or anxiety-provoking situation, you may be able to feel these sensations in you own body in the present moment! Trauma means repeating this experience on a grander scale with more intensity and impact. We may re-experiencing pain, emotions, and sensations leftover from the past in the present moment—just like you were doing now.

Everyone experiences trauma differently, and it is not uncommon for two people experiencing the exact same traumatic event to respond differently. This is perfectly normal. Also, our response to trauma is greatly impacted by the severity of the event (what we call “Big T” traumas, like abuse or a near-death experience, or “little t” traumas, like minor accidents or some broken relationships) and whether the event occurred once (like a natural disaster) or was more ongoing (like childhood abuse). These differences can impact what treatments may be helpful when moving toward healing–but it is important to remember that all trauma can create a lasting impression.

Understanding the impact of trauma means shifting your focus from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” By making this change in our understanding, we are better able to compassionately care for our children, our communities, and ourselves.

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