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Setting the Record Straight: What is Trauma from a Mental Health Perspective?


The word trauma is floating around various settings, creating misconceptions, including how we interpret our own mental health. Tv shows, podcasts, and our explore page on social media define trauma for us. Whether it is being discussed in a favorite episode of Law and Order or the hallway at school, understanding the word is different for all. I hope to deconstruct this buzzword to help you better comprehend the meaning and how it plays a role in your life. 




Let's start with the basics. Trauma originated as a description of a physical wound which was later broadened to include emotional wounds. We often envision a military figure returning from war when we think of trauma. This is not wrong, considering clinicians first diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in soldiers. Think of trauma as an umbrella term for stressful experiences that lead to a change in functioning. Someone with trauma symptoms may be the victim, someone who witnessed an event, or somebody who heard about an event. 



We feel stressed when we are overwhelmed. Stress can come in many forms, including good pressure. Examples can include the feelings present at a birthday, wedding, or starting a new yet desired responsibility in life. It simply means that you care! The stress that can lead to trauma occurs when an event, often unseeable with a quick onset, threatens safety creating a fight, flight or freeze response. This response is the body's way of protecting itself from danger. It is accompanied by atypical reactions that remain once the event has stopped. This is considered trauma when neurological distress prevents the return to equilibrium. To summarize, consider the Three E's - Event, Experience, and Effect



Trauma is experienced by all differently. A traumatic event may affect one person more adversely than another and cannot be compared. Risk factors include the amount of stress present when the incident occurs. For example, if someone is already going through heavy stress or a series of losses, such as a family member, job, or financial loss. The determination of the event does not come from objective facts of the event but, more importantly, the subjective experience of the event. Traumatization impairs mental, social, physical, and emotional health. A one-time event or ongoing stress can cause trauma, such as types of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) or neglect. Symptoms can be acute or chronic and are most often interconnected. Common symptoms are dysfunctional body sensations, beliefs, behaviors, and affect. Some examples are as follows: 

  •  Increased heart rate

  •  Intense anxiety or panic attacks

  •  A thought of being bad, worthless, or without value 

  •  Self-blame, suicidal ideation, self-injurious behavior 

  •  Fears of people, places, or things

  •  Eating disorders, depression, inability to tolerate strong feelings 

  •  Avoidance, flashbacks, dissociation, sleep disturbances 

There must be special considerations when a child or adolescent experience a traumatic event. Their attachment style and their brain are still developing. In addition, an emphasis on healthy coping mechanisms is needed. Poor coping strategies, such as substance use, can inhibit brain development.






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