Rae Gateley, LCSW
What IS Trauma, Anyway?
Trauma is not new; it has always been part of the human experience. What is fairly new is the high level of awareness and interest in trauma that we see throughout society today. Unfortunately, greater awareness doesn't equate with clearer understanding. Maybe everybody's talking about trauma, but that doesn't mean everybody's using the same definitions.
Discussions of trauma often resemble the situation described in the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Remember the story? One man touched the elephant's tail and said, "An elephant is like a rope." Another felt the side of the massive animal and said, "An elephant is like a wall," and so it continued, with each man describing one part of the elephant but not comprehending the whole animal. Today's post will provide an overall definition of trauma to enable you to see the whole elephant, so to speak. In later posts, when we focus on different aspects of the trauma "elephant," you'll be able to understand how the parts fit into the greater context. So... let's get started!
Trauma is a complex concept encompassing physical and emotional experiences within an individual as well as the external events which triggered those experiences. To understand how this might play out, consider a hypothetical situation: A woman was in a car accident recently. She had a green light, and was driving through an intersection when another driver ran through his red light at a high speed, crashing into the side of her vehicle. Her airbag deployed, likely saving her life, but the force of it broke her nose and caused extensive bruising on her upper body. Now, a few weeks after the accident, she has difficulty sleeping and feels unable to drive due to anxiety. She is able to ride as a passenger, but feels very tense during car rides, especially when passing through intersections.
This story demonstrates the three different ways we use the term "trauma" in English: 1) a deeply disturbing experience (the car crash), 2) a physical injury (a broken nose, bruising), and 3) an emotional injury (sleep difficulties, anxiety, avoidance). Instead of thinking in terms of three different definitions of trauma, it's helpful to think of them as different parts of the same experience. The following diagram details these three aspects of trauma and shows how they relate to and interact with each other.
Notice that a trauma event can result in physical or emotional injury, or both. All of these possible outcomes are the natural result of an external circumstance upon our mind/body system. We don't choose our injuries, and they don't reveal anything about our character; they are simply the lingering effects of something that happened to us. Understanding this can lift the burden of shame and stigma that so often comes with emotional injury and interferes with healing. In our story of the woman in the car accident, most people would respond to her physical injuries with compassion. They wouldn't roll their eyes and tell her to just grow up and get over that broken nose, but they might respond to her emotional injuries in that way, and she might even feel that way herself. If you feel shame within yourself or toward others who have experienced trauma, I would ask you to reflect on that and open yourself up to a new perspective.