The word “trauma” carries a lot of weight in our society and is commonly associated with the psychological aftermath of experiencing severely disturbing, extraordinary, and disastrous events such as war, physical/sexual assaults, natural disasters, car accidents, etc. Oftentimes when working with individuals, I notice an apprehension to label one’s painful experiences as trauma, despite describing the same physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms linked to trauma.
It’s likely that the word trauma brings up a world of different thoughts and feelings for you when you hear it. You might think that there is a specific level of pain or hurt required to deem your struggle as trauma, when in reality trauma occurs on a spectrum. As humans, we have the tendency to compare and minimize our own pain when measuring it up against other people’s struggles. Truthfully, this feels a lot safer and easier to cope with. But what if instead of comparing we recognized that both our own and others’ experiences of pain are valid?
Trauma can be a loaded and frankly somewhat scary word, but what actually is it? The word derives from the Greek language in which it literally translates to “wound.” Over time, the use of this word has adapted to refer to not only physical wounds, but also psychological and emotional wounds—what some refer to as “soul wounds.”
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.” APA goes on to define types of traumatic events as “those caused by human behavior (e.g. rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.”
Considering both of the above literal and more research-based definitions, the word trauma can be used to describe or label the response to a multitude of other distressing events that often bring people to therapy. Experiences such as bullying, growing up in an unstable household, being raised by a caregiver struggling with substance use or mental health issues, moving frequently, racism, neglect, witnessing violence in the home/community, death of a caregiver, etc. are all examples of traumatic situations that could very well disrupt a person’s daily functioning in the same way that experiencing combat or assault could.
The most important piece to consider is that any of these events may compromise feelings of safety and security, whether that be physical or emotional, and ultimately lead to the same responses in the brain and body. It’s not so much the magnitude of the event, but rather the magnitude of the response and the impact of the event on the individual that needs to be examined.
If the events you have survived have caused disruption in your daily life (however that may look), it doesn’t matter if others have been through “worse”; your pain is still valid.
Regardless of the nature of the event that caused your trauma, engaging in trauma-informed talk therapy can provide a safe space to process through the experience and provide you with the tools to move through the effects of trauma.
In the next few blog posts, we will be diving deeper into the different types of trauma, how trauma commonly shows up in the brain and body, and different theories of treatment and intervention.
Courtney Buckney, MHC-LP is a therapist at Holistic Psychotherapy NYC. If you are looking to begin therapy or have more questions, check out our FAQ page or contact us to schedule an appointment or a free initial phone consultation.