What is trauma?


What is trauma?

A survivor perspective.

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There are many definitions of trauma. For trauma survivors, sometimes it feels like we don’t fit into any of them.

Is trauma about particular types of things that happen to people?

The average person thinks that trauma is particular type of event, such as child abuse or assault. And, yes, these certainly can be trauma (in fact they almost always are), but that’s not the full story.

Is trauma clearly defined by science?

You can find lots of professional and academic definitions of trauma, too. These are usually a bit more inclusive, but not always. And they vary a lot.

Is trauma about PTSD?

When it comes to trauma and mental health, it can get really confusing. Mostly we are told that if trauma has really affected us, then we will get diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But what about those of us who get diagnosed with depression, or schizophrenia, or borderline, or anxiety or something else? Does that mean that trauma doesn’t matter for our mental health?

Of course it should matter. In fact, there is increasing research, and thousands of survivor stories, that tell us that trauma can be related to any type of mental health problem, not just PTSD. But sadly, more often than not, most of our experiences of trauma are ignored by mental health services.

Actually, trauma is a uniquely personal and complex experience

Trauma is something very personal, and so it’s different for each of us. Trauma doesn’t just include a harmful event, but also our experience of these events – plus the context of our life, identity, family, society, culture and those things that did or did not happen to us before and after we have traumatic experiences.

IMAGE: A more nuanced way to think about trauma


Types of traumatic events.

Often trauma is defined by lists of events or circumstances that we know are likely to be harmful.

Are lists of trauma types enough? I don’t think so.

The problem is, there are just too many types of traumatic events to capture them all. And so lists like this will invariably leave out someone’s experience. The other reason these lists are not enough is that each of us will respond to events in different ways.

For example, while almost anyone would find an event like physical assault to be painful and frightening, we know that not everyone who experiences physical assault will end up with a mental health difficulty.


The individual experience of trauma.

A key aspect of trauma is that the mental health impact is very much about how we experience the event, rather than the event itself.

Some events are, of course, likely to be profoundly harmful for almost anyone. Child sexual abuse is one such example. Other events can leave us feeling confused about whether or not they really were trauma.

The key thing to remember is that we are all different, and our lives, circumstances, opportunities and experiences differ too. I think a far more useful way to think about trauma is to ask whether you have had any type of experience that:

1. Caused you harm

Harm can mean:

Physical, mental, emotional, social or spiritual harm

Direct or indirect harm

Being at serious risk of harm, or threatened with harm, especially over a long period of time

Witnessing harm being done to or by others

Intentional or accidental harm caused by others

Environmental harm not caused by any person or group

2. Made you feel scared, terrified or frightened

3. Was overwhelming

Some people talk about feeling completely submerged by trauma, or feeling engulfed, or taken over.

4. Made you feel powerless or helpless

Describing trauma by the experience rather than the type of ‘event’


Tip for mental health workers

If you’re a mental health worker, remember that asking us if we have ever had these types of experiences can be far more helpful than directly asking if we’ve experienced traumatic events, or than giving us checklists or ‘trauma surveys’ of horrible things that may have happened to us.

We don’t always think of our experiences as trauma, but most of us will relate to these types of experiential descriptions.


The context of trauma.

How we experience traumatic events will depend not just on the event and our experience of it, but also on many other factors.

I call these the ‘context of trauma’.

Thinking through these factors can be a helpful way of understanding why a traumatic experience has had such a devastating effect on our life and our mental health. The context of trauma is often ignored, and yet sometimes the context can have just as great an impact on our mental health as the traumatic event itself.

I think there are three areas that can be helpful to consider. I also think it can be helpful to talk these factors over with someone you trust, because thinking about trauma in detail – especially if we’ve avoided it for years – can become very distressing.

Go slowly, and find allies to support you.

1. Characteristics of the trauma event, ourselves and our culture

  • Was the traumatic event environmental or caused by people?
  • Did someone intend to cause you harm or was it accidental?
  • Were you alone in your experience or did others share it with you?
  • How did you make sense of the traumatic event in the context of your society, culture, gender, sexuality and spirituality?
  • How young were you?
  • How long did the event/circumstance last for?


2. Protective factors – what happened in our lives before trauma

  • Did your life experiences help you to be more resilient to a traumatic experience, or did they result in you being more vulnerable to the impact of traumatic experience?
  • Experiences that shape our resilience or vulnerability are often outside of our control. And we may not always realise how significant they can be. We are rarely all one or the other – we may be resilient in some areas and vulnerable in others.

The table below shows the different types of experiences we can have after experiencing trauma. Some of these experiences might help us to heal, such as telling someone and being believed, while other experiences might compound the impact of the original trauma, such as telling someone and not being believed.

By thinking about the context of what happened to you before and after traumatic experiences, you may find it a little easier to understand some of the ways that trauma has affected you.

Factors that may build resilience Factors that may create vulnerability
Past sense of achievement
Positive feedback from others
Material advantage
Secure attachment to our parents in infancy
Material and social resources
Helpful framework to make sense of the world (eg., philosophical, spiritual or cultural beliefs & supports)
Little experience of choice or control
Materially and/or socially disadvantaged (eg., poverty, educational disadvantage, class structures)
Insecure attachment to parents in infancy
The context of trauma: Protective factors

3. Healing factors – what happened after the trauma

For myself, and many others I have met over the years, it was what happened afterwards that was most significant in why my traumatic
experience harmed my long term mental and emotional wellbeing.

It took me a long time to realise that what happened after my major trauma just continued to compound the harm that had been done. For example, I was never able to speak about what happened, I was punished, I never gained justice or counselling or information to help me make sense of what had happened.

Did life experiences compound your traumatic experience so that its impact was more severe and lasting, or did you have experiences that supported restoration of your emotional self?

Restorative factors after a traumatic experience Compounding factors after a traumatic experience
Telling someone.
Being believed.
Accessing information to understand what happened.
Accessing justice.
Receiving support.
Finding safety.
Keeping it secret or not being able to tell anyone.
Not being believed.
Being punished.
No access to justice or information or even injustice.
No support.
Continued danger.
Further trauma.
Lasting physical effects.
The context of trauma: Restorative or compounding factors

In summary

Trauma is an incredibly variable personal experience. What is traumatic for one person may not be so for someone else.

For example, few people would consider the experience of ‘moving house’ to be traumatic. Yet for a small child who is having to move away from the first and only friend they have ever made, such an event could have a traumatic impact for years. It’s even possible that this child may experience devastating pain and loss without their loving parents even being aware of it. It’s all about context.

If you can, please do remember there is little value in comparing your own experience of trauma to someone else. What’s important is the impact on you, in your own life.

Trauma can impact anyone’s mental health, and making sense of our trauma, with support, may be an important step in mental health recovery.

Don’t be alone, and find the types of support services that are right for you. Most importantly, don’t ever give up.

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