What Trauma Is And Is Not

October 7, 2019   •  Posted in: 

Part I of a Six-part Trauma Series. Trigger warning: This is a difficult topic. Some examples of traumas will be alluded to without details in order to set a scene for clarity and relatability. 


“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just snap out of it?  It’s been almost a year now! Come on, Jenna…get over it already!”

Sitting in her car, frozen, she knew she would be late again. Another job, gone. It did not make any sense. The accident was not her fault and there was no real damage. Her parents were not angry with her and the car was fine now. Nevertheless, climbing behind the wheel often continued to result in either all-out panic or complete immobilization. She had the car inspected multiple times, drove only the speed limit down back roads, and still, nothing changed. She feels like an idiot.

“Mylo, really? It’s Christmas. Can’t you just come to the mall with us once? We are not in Baghdad. No one is going to hurt you. I know you know that. Just do your deep breathing, you’ll be fine.”

She didn’t get it. No one did. No one except his combat buddies. They knew what it was like to feel crazy. He had done the mandatory therapy thing, but nothing seemed to help him manage the torrent of images and sensations that bombarded him day after day. How do you explain to someone that something just smells, sounds, or feels wrong? Especially if they cannot sense it as he does. How could his girlfriend ever understand that he did not have control over the actions of his own body? Big, strong, confident Mylo – reduced to what feels like a puddle on the floor because of a group of teenagers clapping their hands in the mall. He feels like an idiot.

Sit for a minute in a quiet place and imagine the two scenarios above. What do you notice? Do you have questions? Maybe you understand that Jenna just had a little fender-bender and you, like her, wonder why she still struggles almost a year later.  Is she making a big deal out of nothing? Milking it a bit, maybe? Perhaps you even secretly agree with her self-assessment. Maybe you understand Mylo better and therefore wonder why his girlfriend is so insensitive? After all, the man was in a war zone! Surely, she should be more understanding. How do you feel about his self-abasing name-calling?

In order to create a space for healing and growth, it is important to allow difficult-to-admit questions to be asked (posed in a respectful manner). Secret thoughts need to be exposed in order to bring truth and clarity. After all, in a world where some claim Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a particularly difficult afternoon commute, while a chronically abused spouse covers scars and feigns wellness, it can be nearly impossible to really understand what trauma even is. 

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines trauma as “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time.”

It can be helpful to think of trauma as a sort of spectrum, ranging from unpleasant surprises on one end to near-death experiences on the other. Not all trauma is of the “threat to life and limb” type, though these may be easier to name as traumas. By the definition above, yelling at a child in front of their friends, or being cut-off in traffic and swerving onto the shoulder are both traumatic events. 

The true differentiator between traumatic experiences has to do with any individual’s perception. This means that trauma is an assault on the brain as well as the body, mind, and spirit! Can you see the enormous potential for variation there? Two people may be involved in the same traumatic event, but the temperament, biological attributes, and life experience of both people may drastically differ, resulting in one being diagnosed with PTSD and the other not. 

To better understand, let us learn some trauma vocabulary

Vicarious Trauma: This is when someone sees, hears about, or feels a traumatic experience that happened to someone else or in another place. For example, most people were not in New York City the morning of September 11, 2001, and yet those who watched the news reports all day or heard harrowing stories (especially when they were repeated and visually graphic) most likely experienced this type of trauma.

Conventional Trauma: This is the type of trauma indicated by Webster’s definition earlier. There is a vast range of kind, depth, and level. 

Chronic or Complex Trauma: When traumatic experiences are repeated over an extended period of time, such as in the case of childhood abuse or human trafficking, this is chronic trauma. When there are multiple traumas, such as a death, loss of job, divorce, and injury all sustained by one person (most likely close together, say all within one year), this is complex trauma.

Trauma Trigger: Any type of internal or external reminder of the trauma. These can be in a person’s awareness or not. These are not always rational. A child can be playing with a dog and their parent can come up and slap them, scolding them about being late, and from then on, the child could be afraid of dogs. This is because the part of the brain that “tags” something as a danger learns by association, not by “in-the-moment” detail or logic.

Trauma Response: This, perhaps, is the key to understanding trauma. This term refers to the way in which a person reacts to after-the-fact triggers that remind the brain and body of the trauma. There is also a great deal of variety to this, but some examples are: Easily startled, high anxiety or panic at trauma triggers, hypervigilance, irritability, difficulty concentrating, avoidance of the triggers (or even discussing the triggers), derealization (feeling as if the world or themselves are “unreal”), depersonalization (the feeling of watching oneself from outside), withdrawal, and/or sleep disturbances (including sleeping too much, too little, or having nightmares).

Be aware that because we have a vocabulary for trauma, we can be fooled into believing that people’s experiences can be easily understood or explained. This is simply untrue. The entire notion of trauma is highly complex. Therefore, most people would benefit from simply noticing and addressing trauma responses rather than trying to figure out all the whys and wherefores related to types of traumas and their triggers. 

As we end, let’s return to Jenna and Mylo. Jenna experienced first-hand, conventional trauma. Whatever it is about her life experiences to date, her perception of her ability to drive safely has been greatly compromised. The result is often a panic disorder. Mylo experienced complex trauma during combat, and his girlfriend most likely had vicarious trauma. Mylo exhibits symptoms of PTSD and his girlfriend could be having various grief responses. All have been affected and would benefit from patience, support, and a genuine understanding that their responses to trauma are:

  • Not a character flaw
  • Not weakness

In future editions, we will elaborate on this as we look at the various long-term traumatic reaction states of anger, depression, and guilt. We will also address those who care for trauma survivors. 

If you, or someone you love, struggles with trauma, contact The Center; A Place of Hope. Their caring, knowledgeable, and highly trained professionals help people recover from all types of trauma or PTSD.


Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, is a Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center ● A Place of Hope. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds,...

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