What is Trauma?

The word trauma is one that has become part of a lot of people's vocabularies in recent years.  We hear it concerning the shootings that have become a regular occurrence in our world, and then it also seems to be used in explaining something as "simple" as an argument that has happened at work.  But what does it mean?  And are we blowing it out of proportion or are we minimizing it when we use the word?

According to Peter Levine, a leading trauma expert, the word is a challenging one to define accurately.  In his book, Healing Trauma, he says "what I do know is that we become traumatized when our ability to respond to a perceived threat is in some way overwhelmed.  This inability to adequately respond can impact us in obvious ways, as well as ways that are subtle." 

There are a few keys to understanding trauma.

It is personal

When we experience something that we feel unprepared for, it can be considered a traumatic event.  If we can start to absorb that definition of trauma, then we realize that what may seem like nothing to me, can be traumatic for you.  We need to "hone in on the fact that people can be traumatized by any event they perceive (consciously or unconsciously) to be life-threatening" (Peter Levine, p. 11).  So a tree falling in a storm may feel threatening to a child, whereas you just see it as a result of a storm, but if they perceive that they are unable to deal with the possibility that it could have fallen on their house, then it is traumatic to them.  

It can come in many forms

If we take the example of the tree falling above, we can start to see how the causes of trauma fit into different categories.

Obvious causes would be something like war, rape, or experiencing or being a witness to violence.  

Less apparent causes are ones that highlight the idea that trauma is something that is perceived by the one that is experiencing the event.  So a car accident or divorce may not seem like a traumatic event to you, but to someone who did not feel prepared or equipped to deal with the situation or the results of those events, it is traumatic.  

It manifests in your body

A common misconception is that trauma is something that is in your head, and therefore you should just be able to use self-talk or rationalization to get over it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  "Trauma is something that happens initially to our bodies and our instincts.  Only then do its effects spread to our minds, emotions, and spirits" (Peter Levine, p. 30).

Quite often, we respond to trauma by feeling anxious or nervous.  We may not notice it at first, but almost any response you experience you have to your traumatic event is related to the burst of energy that you experienced during the original event.  Your body was prepared to respond to the perceived danger that you experienced, and quite often that power can be locked into your body as you try to recover from the event.  It is quite common to have people come to counselling to deal with anxiety or a sense of being frozen in life and then realize that it stems from something that happened in their lives that they felt they were not prepared for or posed a threat to their physical or emotional well-being.

A great resource that you might want to use to understand trauma better is the book referred to in this article.  It is a book entitled "Healing Trauma" written by Peter Levine (2008, Sounds True Publications).  It provides more information about what trauma is and some practical tools that you can use at home to help deal with the effects that trauma has had on your life.  It works great as a supplement to meeting with a counsellor that understands and operates from a trauma-informed perspective.

I hope you enjoyed this first article in a series I will be doing to begin to understand what trauma is and how it might affect your daily life.  If you would like to learn more or explore whether the struggles you are facing may be related to a traumatic event, please contact me at 778-549-6334 or through the link below.