What Is Trauma?

Trauma is a wound. Typically trauma refers to either a physical injury, such as a broken bone, or an emotional state of profound and prolonged distress in response to an overwhelmingly terrifying or unstable experience. Some trauma, like wounds, heal relatively quickly, some heal slowly, and many influence life going forward, like scars. Scars and trauma do not result in defects or deficiencies; rather they are markers of life experience one has survived.

Traumatic experiences are events that threaten or violate one’s safety, health, and integrity. Traumatic experiences may be directly experienced or witnessed. They may be primarily physical experiences, as with physical assaults and sexual abuse, or primarily emotional experiences, as with verbal abuse. Traumatic experiences may result in the emotional experience of traumatic stress, but not necessarily.

Traumatic experiences are classified as acute traumatic events or chronic traumatic situations. Acute traumatic events are typically single events and initially are accompanied by feeling intense fear and/or helplessness. Acute traumatic events may include assaults, community violence, natural disasters, and sudden loss of a loved one. Chronic traumatic situations are persistently repeated threats or violations of safety and integrity and are associated with a complex range of emotions potentially including fear, shame, distrust, hopelessness, and numbness. Examples of chronic traumatic situations are chronic abuse, domestic and intimate partner violence, and political violence. Many people experience complex trauma which includes multiple traumatic experiences, typically of different types of trauma.

Traumatic stress specifically identifies emotional trauma. Traumatic stress occurs when an individual’s capacity to absorb, process, and progress through a traumatic experience is overwhelmed and the fear becomes stuck. Traumatic stress results from a combination of individual factors – who we are, our genes, our temperament, and our life experience, and environmental or social factors. Everyone reacts to traumatic experiences in a unique way that is influenced by life and cultural experience. Everyone is capable of recovery from traumatic stress, but each individual will require different support and a different amount of time for that recovery.

Traumatic stress looks and feels different for each person. Often it is associated with complex and confusing emotional reactions and behaviors. Age and developmental stage, culture, and environment all significantly influence the expression of traumatic stress. Traumatic stress reactions can include intensely reactive emotions, emotional numbness, hyper-alertness, dissociation, intermittent regression to behaviors associated with a younger developmental stage, increased need for control, distrust, disengagement, impulsivity, irritability, disruption in sleep, distractibility, recurring memories, smells, or sounds from the event, nightmares, and forgetfulness.

Trauma informed care recognizes that traumatic experiences terrify, overwhelm, and violate the individual. Trauma informed care is a commitment not to repeat these experiences and, in whatever way possible, to restore a sense of safety, power, and self-worth.