The Elusive Definition of Trauma

Trauma is an event that involves a threat to life, limb or personhood.  We often think of trauma as violent and physical, bringing to mind images of war, gangs, assault, vehicle accidents, sexual violence, child abuse and acts of nature that are very destructive like earthquakes and fires.  These are most certainly traumatic, but trauma does not always have to be intense physical violence.  From a more inclusive perspective, a traumatic event is any event that causes a sudden, intense, significant, and negative change in our sense of who we are, what we are capable of, our sense of the world, how it works, our place in it, and our belief about our future. So the concept of trauma can also include events such as job loss, business failure, relationship failure, family conflict, non-violent death of a loved one, being diagnosed with a serious medical condition, abandonment by a significant person, being bullied, and many other experiences.  For example, my friends, who were evacuated twice from the path of a large forest fire but did not lose their home, feel a new and profound sense of helplessness in the face of natural disasters. They are now acutely aware about how uncertain their world can be and how in a very short amount of time, what they believed their lives to be and their futures, could go up in flames with very little warning.  They feel insecure, lost, and overwhelmed.  Losing a home to such a fire just intensifies the trauma.

I also want to make a special note here about children.  I do not define trauma for a child.  What is traumatic for a child is defined by the child and affected by psychological and biological development stages, family and social support structures, and a vast array of other factors.  As I said, traumatic events cause sudden, intense, significant, and negative changes in our sense of who we are, what we are capable of, our sense of the world, how it works, our place in it, and our belief about our future.  For children with limited capabilities in abstract thinking, they can internalize even the most benign events as traumatic and then organize around the suffering of the experience.  For example, many children internalize parental conflict and divorce as life threatening.  While they cannot articulate it as such, their physical and emotional experience is that their lives are at risk as the two most important caregivers in their life might disappear on them.  Imagine the anxiety that is produced.  On top of that, very young children (3-6 years old) often believe that they are the cause of the conflict, adding to the anxiety a negative belief that they are somehow bad or evil.  Another example is the child’s experience when confronted by a clown.  While some do fine with this experience, others literally feel a tremendous threat and react as though fearful for their lives.  This experience can be internalized as a belief that the world is a dangerous place and can lead to increased anxiety. And while they are intended to be silly and funny, many people grow up to have a phobia or at least a discomfort around clowns.  I would argue that this is a legacy of that first threatening meeting.  It is interesting that many adults cognitively understand a clown to be funny; many also feel in their guts that clowns are creepy and threatening.  They are after all the subject of horror movies and at times real life horror as we witnessed in the recent Denver (Aurora) shootings.