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What exactly is “trauma”?

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

A short and simple guide or primer.

Trauma essentially refers to experiences that negatively overwhelm the mind and body’s internal balance or harmony. This imbalance is expressed by a variety of symptoms in emotion, behaviour, thoughts, and physiological response. Additionally, this imbalance can affect relationships or people's social lives. For some people, traumatic experiences are so disruptive to their internal system that the symptoms can persist for weeks, months, and years, leading to what the medical model describes as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the criteria for PTSD, an individual would need to experience a set number of symptoms for an extended period of time, including (a) re-experiences of the traumatic event(s) like flashbacks and recurring nightmares, (b) negative thoughts and moods relating to or since the event(s), (c) avoidance of any association of the traumatic event(s) like suppressing thoughts or feelings about it, avoiding the location where it took place, and feeling more emotionally detached from things or from yourself, and (d) being in a heightened state of arousal or more generally anxious than usual.

Trauma can involve a singe one-off event that happens unexpectedly, and some trauma can be anticipated or expected, and happen repeatedly. According to some psychological and therapeutic models, trauma can be applied in a much broader way where it does not necessarily involve big events or incidences, like being in an accident, witness to something awful, or being severely abused in some way. Rather, "little" or adverse events can still be traumatic and affect someone’s life in the long-term, like being bullied or having an embarrassing social experience. Furthermore, experiencing multiple little traumas can result in big psychological difficulties just as multiple big traumas can.

It is important to realise that however someone responds or deals with trauma is not their fault: our minds and bodies are trying their best to cope with the apparatus they have and in relation to the environments that they find themselves in. It is understandable why people suffer from traumatic experiences in the short- or long-term, even though it can be extremely distressing.

The EMDR model of trauma (see here for more information) considers a key ingredient of mental health problems in relation to traumatic experiences, whether “big” or “little”, is that people continue to re-experience the event in the present as if they were still in the past. This is because the traumatic material is blocked and unprocessed (“processing” in this context refers to further learning or updating of one’s cognitive and emotional understanding about something). In other words, people are sort of stuck in time, especially when their trauma symptoms are triggered or re-activated. Their mind and body react believing that they are actually re-experiencing the event(s) again. Until the blockage is removed, so the theory goes, the processing of the traumatic material remains dormant or “frozen” in the brain. This implies that trauma problems heavily hinge on how memory works, since memory is responsible for the storage, encoding, and retrieval of memories.

Working with a trauma-informed or trauma-focused therapist (see my other article “What Does Trauma-Informed Therapy/Practice Mean?”) can hopefully ensure you are in safe hands, as they would generally have a thorough understanding about trauma and how to help people heal.

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