The term ‘trauma’ comes from the ancient Greek word meaning to ‘wound’ or to ‘pierce’, and can be understood in our context as a piercing or wounding of the person’s psyche and an overwhelming of their psychological defenses (Spiers & Harrington, 2001).
Trauma can be defined as any event that causes an unusually high level of emotional stress and has a long lasting negative effect on a person.
Essentially, any situation that leaves someone feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope or left in a daze can be traumatic, regardless of whether there was physical harm.
Trauma isn’t objective; it’s the individual’s subjective emotional experience of an event that determines whether it was traumatic. One person can experience an event and be able to bounce back and another individual can have lasting effects of the same or very similar experience. There are a few components at play here.
If someone was badly hurt or abused but they had “safe” people to turn to, their ability to heal and move through the pain is significantly better than one who has doesn’t.
As Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “It’s not only what happened, it’s also what didn’t happen”.
This brings up an important factor about trauma that often needs to be explained. Trauma can be broken down into two categories of life events: “Small T” and “Big T” traumas.
Big “T” traumas refer to experiencing a highly distressing event such as but not limited to:
- War (including the war raging in our homes)
- Near death experience
- Sexual, physical abuse
Small “T” traumas relate to experiences that overwhelm the mind and body, they may seem less significant, yet cause feelings of intense distress. For example but not limited to:
- Emotional neglect
- Loss (including pets, moving often, changing schools)
- Feelings of isolation (being ignored)
- Living in a shame filled relationship (critisized, blamed)
- Feeling chronically inadequate (not good enough, worthless)
- Being raised in an unpredictable environment (Parents with mental illness, addiction)