What is Trauma?
There are several definitions for trauma. One simple one is when our system gets overwhelmed due to an event. Something happens that overcomes us – it is too much, too fast, too soon - and there is not enough time to integrate the experience. Another definition of trauma is an experience of extreme stress or shock that is or was, at some point, part of life; an experience that threatens our entire organism (body, mind and soul) by causing a rupture in our capacity to assimilate and self-regulate.
Trauma is also, paradoxically, a potential gift if framed as an opportunity to learn about ourselves, practice forgiveness and strengthen our resilience. Difficult circumstances have the potential to transform us. It can be challenging to see trauma in this light, yet creating the space for this possibility can be a step toward integration and healing.
Knowing what trauma is and how it can affect us is important. It’s also important to note what the effects of trauma are NOT. Trauma (or more specifically, Post Traumatic Stress) is neither a disorder nor a disease. What transpires is actually a type of “order”. During a traumatic event, the brain is making sense of what is happening in a micro-second and organizing itself to survive an event that is deemed threatening. When we understand that the way the body initially responds to trauma is a survival mechanism that we are biologically wired with, it helps soften the shame and blame that often gnaws at us, depleting our inner reserves and lowering our self-esteem. It allows the stigma, or the thought/feeling that “something is wrong with me” to fade.
Just as there are many definitions of trauma, there are several different types.
Soft trauma is considered prolonged physiological or emotional abuse. All forms of abuse fall into this category (child abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, narcissistic relationships, domestic abuse, etc.), and almost all of us have experienced this in some form.
Hard trauma (almost always physical) includes car accidents, natural disasters, surgeries, assaults.
Vicarious trauma - aka “compassion fatigue”, or “cost of caring” – is considered a secondary trauma or secondary victimization. This type is often felt by counselors working with trauma survivors.
Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.
Repeated stress - Some trauma victims find themselves trapped in environments where they can easily become re-victimized. Some trauma victims live in countries where they are constantly under threat of death or arrest or violence and these are victims of Continuous Traumatic Stress (CTS) as opposed to Post Traumatic Stress.
Typically, trauma involves the simultaneous or sequential occurrence of child maltreatment—including psychological maltreatment, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and domestic violence—that is chronic, begins in early childhood, and occurs within the primary caregiving system. Exposure to these initial traumatic experiences—and the resulting emotional dysregulation and the loss of safety, direction, and the ability to detect or respond to danger cues—often sets off a chain of events leading to subsequent or repeated trauma exposure in adolescence and adulthood.