What is Trauma?

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

As I started this journey of becoming a Trauma Recovery Coach, I was struck by how many types of trauma there are and the aftereffects that are so pervasive throughout our lives. But how do we define trauma? Is it just an event, like a car accident or a hurricane? Or as so many of us have experienced, is it consistent and frequent events, like childhood abuse or emotional neglect? It's actually all of these things. The definition of trauma that I align myself with is about the individual, not that the events aren't important as they absolutely are, but the impact of trauma is based on where the person is at emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Let me give you an example.

In Pete Walker's book, Complex PTSD- From Surviving to Thriving, he talks about a first grade student who witnessed the devastation of 9/11 from his classroom at school. This child had 'good enough' parenting, a termed coined by Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, where parent's are not perfect, can admit fault and take responsibility for their actions, and the child is loved and emotionally supported. When the trauma of 9/11 presented itself to this child, he had a better ability to process through it, because of his 'good enough' parenting. He drew a picture that he showed to Pete Walker, of the buildings and the planes crashing into it, with people jumping and falling from the building but he drew a trampoline at the bottom to save them. He had processed through the trauma and come up with solution, in case such a horrific event occurred again. Now in a child who had sustained developmental trauma, he/she may have not been able to process through the event and what he/she had seen, and the trauma could have remained present, effecting his mental & physical health and well-being for years to come.

So let's define trauma:

A circumstance or event is traumatic to an individual if it meets the following three criteria:

-The individual feels they are powerless to control the circumstance or event

-The circumstance or event intensely frightens the individual

-The circumstance or event changes the individual's beliefs about themselves, the world and their interactions with the world

Trauma is defined from the perspective of the individual. A circumstance or event that might be traumatic for one individual might not be for another. Temperament, prior experience with trauma and level of resilience all play a significant role in someone's individual response to a potentially traumatic event or circumstance. When a new trauma is added onto a strand, i.e. childhood abuse/neglect, then date rape in teen years for example, it knocks the person down further than another person who didn't have childhood abuse/neglect. Trauma can emotionally and developmentally freeze us, we become 'stuck' emotionally at the time that the trauma occurred, bringing into adulthood such things as black and white thinking, using denial and chaos as survival tools.

There are two kinds of trauma:

-Environmental: car accidents, natural disasters, medical procedures, combat/war

-Interpersonal- in the course of any relationship/contact with any person as sexual

abuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse

So the need and absolute necessity of looking at a person's trauma and their reaction to it, is imperative to future mental & physical health, struggles with addiction and codependency, communication skills and ability to love self and others. When we can see what the problem is, then and only then can we work towards healing.

Source: Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker, An Azure Coyote Book ©2014.

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