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What is Trauma?

In today’s modern world of 24/7 news, we’ve all seen reports of shocking tragedy and loss: hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist events, mass shootings – the list can go on and on. It’s easy to understand how these events might be defined as traumatic for someone who lived through them.

But “trauma” actually isn’t always so clear.

Trauma is defined as an extreme stressor which presents itself in the form of experiences ranging from natural disasters to accidents or life threatening illnesses, but it also includes physical or sexual abuse, poverty, domestic violence, the loss of a parent or other significant person, and more. The key is understanding that trauma can be experienced directly or witnessed; one need not be the recipient of physical abuse to feel the trauma of seeing it, for example. It can be experiencing, witnessing, or being threatened with an event that involves serious injury, a threat to one’s self or others, or possible death. It can be something not described above but feel just as intense.

Trauma can be complicated because what is traumatic is in the eye of the beholder; if an individual views and feels something as traumatic, then it is traumatic. The effect that a sexual assault has on one person could be similar to the effect that a child feels when his parents’ divorce. Society may view the sexual assault as much more disturbing, but the emotional and traumatic impact could be the same for the individuals in both contexts. In addition, what’s traumatizing to one person may not be for another.

So how does one know if they have experienced trauma? Some common responses include fear, anxiety, helplessness, shame or depression, or it can be something else entirely. Trauma might make someone have nightmares, insomnia or difficulty concentrating. Sometimes a person can articulate the events surrounding such trauma, oftentimes they cannot.

Alas, trauma cannot be defined in simple or concise terms. But its pervasiveness is becoming transparent and cannot be overlooked. Data from a National Survey of Adolescents and other studies indicate that one in four children and adolescents in the United States experiences at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16, and more than 13 percent of 17-year-olds—one in eight—have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. Among adults, one study found that for individuals with substance use disorder (SUD), 37 percent also had PTSD and 97 percent had “trauma exposure.” These last statistics illustrate that just as trauma can be different for everyone, so can the chosen coping mechanism. Talking about it with a trusted person or going to therapy often help, while others may turn to substances like drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. (In this case, seeking trauma-informed substance abuse treatment is essential.)

Trauma is just as personalized as one’s treatment for it should be. What should always be expected however are safety, trust and support. Treatment for trauma can and does work, and individuals can learn how to work past what’s happened to them to live happier, healthier lives.

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