What is trauma?
Some important definitions…
Stress can be defined as any demand or change that the human system (mind, body, spirit) must meet and respond to. Stress is therefore a part of normal life. Without physical and emotional challenges, life would be boring. However, stress becomes distress when it lasts too long, occurs too often, or is too severe.
The term trauma can be confusing because the word is commonly used to refer to both an event (e.g., being shot at) and a reaction (e.g., being very upset after you’ve been shot at). In this module, we use the word trauma to refer to the reaction. As such, trauma is the reaction that occurs when the demands of very stressful events exceed our available coping resources and result in severe distress. This distress has negative consequences for our biological and psychological functioning, leading to trauma reactions. When we experience trauma reactions, we say that we have been traumatized. Trauma may also be referred to as critical incident stress.
What makes an event traumatic?
There are two main elements that influence whether people find a particular event traumatic. These are:
- The nature of the event: Traumatic events are usually either events during which you are seriously physically or emotionally injured, or events that provoke a fear of being killed or seriously injured.
- The meaning of the event to the victim: Some events are traumatic for almost anyone (e.g., rape), but other events are likely to be experienced as traumatic by one person and not by another. In these cases, the way you experience the event – what it means to you – is just as important as the event itself.
Not all disturbing events will prove equally traumatic for everyone who experiences them. If there is a common denominator that sparks a trauma reaction in people, it seems to be the experience of intense fear (including fear of death), helplessness, and loss of control. In simple terms, an equation that describes a traumatic event might look something like this:
Event + Meaning => Feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and loss of control.
For personal reflection…
- Think of an example of an event that might be traumatic for one person, but not as traumatic for someone else. Why might this be?
Next: How trauma can affect your body and mind