What is Trauma?

By Jeff Levy
Defining Trauma

Historically, there has been controversy over what constitutes “trauma.”  Mental health definitions have changed over time, but most explanations still discuss exposure to an event (or witnessing an event) that threatens our physical or emotional integrity—where there is horror, fear, and/or the possibility of death.

While many definitions are useful in providing a clinical understanding of trauma, they don’t capture the subjective nature of our traumas and the possibility that trauma manifests differently for different people at different times of life.  These definitions also don’t fully recognize the possibility of trauma occurring outside the context of a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I’d like to invite us to conceptualize trauma more broadly and not be constrained by a clinical definition for diagnostic purposes. It is important to note that many definitions of trauma exist. Experimenting with the definition I’m about to propose in no way implies it is the only definition or the best definition. More so, it is a definition that allows us to look at the subjective nature of traumatic experience and consider the various ways that trauma may influence our development as humans.  With that in mind, I propose the following definition of trauma:

Trauma is an event, action, or condition that damages, disrupts, distorts, destroys or changes in some fundamental way, how we see ourselves, our relationships, and or our world. These changes manifest consciously and unconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, and frequently involve changes in thoughts, emotions, our five senses, and how we experience our bodies. Trauma may result in post-traumatic stress and/or post-traumatic growth.

One way to experiment with the relevance of this definition is to choose an event that you have identified as traumatic in your life.  On a scale of 1-10 with ten being most traumatic and 1 being least traumatic, explore choosing an event that is somewhere around a 4 or 5.  In doing this exercise, many people report that they automatically choose, or to go, an event that is a 10.  If this is you, just notice you have chosen a charged event and be gentle with yourself as you apply this definition.

Once you have fully imagined the event, action, or condition of the trauma, read the definition out loud and notice the extent to which the experience you have identified resonates with the definition I am postulating. How does the trauma you’ve chosen impact how you see yourself, your relationships, or your view of the world?  How have your thoughts and feelings been influenced?  Your senses?  Where do you hold your feelings or tensions in your body?  How does the trauma impact the way you walk, hold your body, sit, or feel constrained in your movement?

Feel free to modify the definition based on your personal experiences.  More than anything, I hope you will be able to understand the subjective nature of trauma and the many ways it alters how you have been moving forward in your life subsequent to a traumatic experience, keeping in mind that trauma creates stress as well as an opportunity for growth.

What if my trauma is “not as bad as,” or “worse than” someone else’s?

All of us use the word trauma for describing difficult or painful experiences in our lives or in the lives of those we love.  Sometimes we struggle with whether what we have experienced is “as bad as” what others have experienced.  Other times, we struggle with the idea that what we experienced is “far worse than” what others have experienced.  Often, either comparison leaves us questioning our own experience and the extent to which we can “claim” it as traumatic.  We may also feel more isolated when we compare our experience to others’.

As a social worker who is also a therapist, when I think about my own experiences of trauma and the experiences of trauma of those with whom I’ve worked, what I’ve found is that most of us:

  • feel ambivalent, scared, nervous, anxious, or angry about dealing with our trauma
  • feel like therapy is supposed to “fix everything”
  • feel like therapy won’t “fix anything”
  • think that what happened to us may not be as “bad” as what happened to others
  • think that what happened to us may be “worse” than what happened to others
  • want to say everything as soon as possible
  • want to say nothing for as long as you can

I hope that knowing that all of us may, at some point in our lives, believe one or more of the statements above, may help us consider that we are not alone. Others may feel the way we have in the past or the way we do now. Though when we talk about trauma, it is imperative that we speak the same language.  It’s important that we have agreed upon terminology that allows us to have conversation, to gently challenge ourselves and one another, and to grow from these challenges.

When all is said and done, trauma is trauma, and as a result, we—all of us—are changed.

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 2, 2017