What is Trauma?

A trauma is something so difficult, scary, and unpleasant that it continues to haunt the person who experienced or witnessed the event(s).  However, the word “trauma” has such a serious connotation that many people don’t label their experiences as being “traumatic.”  Some may minimize or identify their experiences as less serious than they actually were by comparing them to things they think are worse, like writing off sexual harassment in comparison to rape.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) defines trauma as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways: direct experiencing, witnessing the event(s), learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or friend, or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to negative details of traumatic events (i.e. homicide detectives).”

So by this definition  , most of us have experienced trauma at least once in our lives.  We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve seen some fall ill, some of us live or once lived in or near violent neighborhoods, been in car accidents, have gone to war, or experienced some kind of sexually or physically inappropriate behavior.  In 2010 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) stated that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men report experiencing rape and that 1 in 20 women and men have experienced other forms of sexual violence or coercion.  Furthermore, that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men reported some form of intimate partner violence (domestic abuse) in their lifetimes.  (View Report)

People try to cope with these experiences in different ways.  Some are obviously unhealthy ones like addiction or self-harm (cutting, burning or physically hurting oneself).  Other ways may be less obvious, like working all the time, reckless driving, dangerous hobbies, or engaging in high-risk sexual behavior.  It is a natural and understandable response to want to avoid reminders of painful experiences.  However, trying not to think or talk about them, often keeps people stuck.

Those that talk about their trauma with caring and supportive people stand a better chance of healing than those that choose not to think or talk about these experiences.