An Introduction to Trauma

TRIGGER WARNING: Trauma is an important, but difficult and sensitive topic that may remind you of your own experience(s) and trigger psychological, emotional and/or physical responses. As you’re reading through our October Trauma Series, I strongly encourage you to take extra special care of yourself and don’t hesitate to reach out to a licensed mental health professional or other trauma specialist if you feel overwhelmed by an inability to cope with any triggered responses.

Dear Friends:

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from October 3-9, 2021, so I thought this month would be an ideal time to highlight trauma (which also happens to be my area of specialization). This is the first segment of our 4-part blog series. Today, we explore foundational concepts of trauma, including different types of traumatic experiences. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma is any event that causes psychological, emotional, or physical harm. A traumatic event can also be referred to as a loss event.

Because trauma is subjectively viewed and processed differently by individual, the above definition is a general guideline. Depending upon the individual, a broad range of events can produce trauma: death, separation or divorce, terminal illness, spiritual abuse, a global pandemic, terrorism or mass violence/murder, legal problems, loss of freedom, loss of bodily control, loss of a job or opportunity, or loss from a natural or man-made disaster. As you can see, few people make it through life without experiencing some type of trauma.

Types of Trauma

Because trauma spans a broad spectrum, psychologists have created categories to differentiate types of traumatic experiences.

  1. Acute trauma is a one-time event, such as a single act of terrorism or violence, a natural disaster, fire, assault, a sudden unexpected loss, or a car accident.
  2. Chronic trauma refers to repeated and prolonged traumatic experiences, such as ongoing exposure to family or community violence, chronic bullying, or a long-term health issue.
  3. Complex trauma is exposure to multiple traumatic events from an early age, which has short and long-term effects in many areas, such as parental neglect, family abuse, witnessing domestic violence or experiencing other forms of violence or adversity without adequate adult support.
  4. Historical or racial/race-based trauma is collective and cumulative trauma experienced by a group across generations that are still suffering the effects (e.g., slavery, genocide, discrimination, harassment, violence, and systemic oppression).
  5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after an individual has been exposed to a terrifying event or experienced an event that resulted in actual or threatened physical harm.

A Trauma Framework

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) has researched the impact of trauma on patients and presented a useful tool, The 3 E’s Framework to help us understand how trauma affects a person’s behavioral health. The 3E’s of Trauma are:

  1. Event – Trauma occurs with a catastrophic event. This might be a single event or episodes that occur multiple times.
  2. Experience – Mental health professionals must consider a patient’s experience of each event and note that each individual processes trauma differently, depending upon their community and relationships at the time of the event.
  3. Effect – How an individual processes trauma can have different adverse effects, which might include flashbacks, a state of increased alertness (hypervigilance), persistent anxiety and depression, an inability to cope with stress or the incapacity to form trusting relationships, and physical reactions such as headaches, nausea, and exhaustion.

I’ve covered quite a bit about the foundations of trauma, so hopefully it produces enlightenment and provides points for reflection. Next week, we will explore the symptoms, signs, and effects of trauma.

Until Next Time,

Dr. Mary

P.S., To learn more about trauma, grief and loss, check out our self-paced mini e-course, Through the Fire: Understanding, Finding Meaning in & Coping with Trauma, Grief & Loss, which includes a complimentary Course Companion Journal.

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