A Buzzword Defined: What Does Trauma Really Mean?

We hear the word used conversationally—“that was so traumatic!”—and sometimes, it’s true. Yet, many forms of trauma don’t come up in conversation at all. What is trauma, really? In this series, we are going to take a closer look at what trauma means, its effects, and how we can move forward toward healing.

In short, trauma is an event or experience that disrupts how things should be, and leaves a lasting impact on a person that shapes how they think and respond.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual-V defines trauma as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence through direct experience, witnessing the event, learning it occurred to a family member or friend, or being repeatedly exposed to details of a traumatic event.”  This includes things such as abuse (physical, sexual, psychological), domestic violence, neglect, community or school violence, major accidents, natural disasters, violent crime, traumatic loss and grief, and terrorism.

Within those definitions, there are a few different types of trauma:

  • Acute trauma is a single incident or event that is easily defined, such as a natural disaster, school shooting, single assault, death of family member.
  • Chronic trauma is an ongoing series of events that are consistently overwhelming and begin early in life. In instances of chronic trauma, the “event” may seem more difficult to pinpoint, as it may be something that occurred on a daily basis (such as growing up in poverty, or experiencing neglect), or may have occurred routinely (such as being continuously abused). When someone experiences chronic trauma, the impact of that on brain development and symptoms over a lifetime is referred to as complex trauma.

Trauma is pervasive and multi-layered by nature—it touches every aspect of a person’s life. In part 2 of this series, we will address what happens in the brain during trauma.

 

Written by: Courtney Hintermeyer

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