First kisses, graduations, awards for well-deserved accomplishments. All of these events have something in common ⎯ they’re life’s memories. Usually, when we go down those brief trips on memory lane, we remember them with fondness and feel warm. At a certain point in our lives, we do experience a feeling that’s less pleasant. For example, when we mourn the loss of a loved one, whether it’s a family member, a friend, or even a pet, we are bound to experience a moment of sadness when we think about them. However, with the support of friends and family, you learn to cope. Some people, however, endure events so painful and severe to the point that it becomes difficult to complete everyday tasks–even ones that seem simple such as going outside and getting errands done. This is what we would call trauma.
Trauma is defined as the reaction to an event that distresses the individual and prevents their ability to respond or function normally to certain situations. When someone experiences trauma, they will usually experience a wide range of symptoms and emotions. Everybody copes with trauma in different ways — some internalize their feelings, while others exemplify them through emotions such as sadness, anger, or denial. In addition, every day tasks may become a chore or just difficult to do. This includes, but is not limited to, feeling a sense of hopelessness, developing depression, nightmares, insomnia, and difficulty in maintaining a relationship with your friends, family, or significant other. If the individual does not cope with their trauma or seek out professional counseling, it can consequently manifest into unhealthy habits –– substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) and alienation, for example.
Director of Research and Education Karen Onderko introduces the different levels of traumas which are broken down to two categories: large T traumas and small t traumas. Large T traumas are described as impactful experiences that contribute to long stressors. An example of a T trauma would be enduring a painful experience such as being sexually assaulted, experiencing child abuse, being part of an abusive relationship, or natural disasters.
Small t traumas are known as “circumstances where one’s bodily safety or life is not threatened, but cause symptoms of trauma nonetheless” (Onderko, 2020). In other words, while you are not harmed in a physical manner, contrary to large T traumas, small t traumas deal with the turmoil your mental health undergoes in everyday situations. This includes events such as a severe breakup, a divorce, getting separated from a loved one, financial struggles, work stress, and even stress that pertains to school.
When people think of trauma, they are quick to associate it with an event that has impacted an individual physically and develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Although PTSD is the most common mental illness in the trauma and stressor related disorders group, not every individual develops it. Other traumatic and stressor related disorders include the likes of acute stress disorder (also known as ASD). Acute stress disorder is caused by traumatic stress and can last at least up to three days. ASD is the exposure to unfortunate events such as death, sexual abuse and severe injury, and it can be directed towards others or even from your own personal experience.
Granted there are more trauma and stressor related disorders, PTSD and ASD are just the tip of the iceberg. For example, people experience what we call unique traumatic events on the basis of their race and ethnicity. For example, a Black person’s negative experience with a police officer will most likely differ from a white person’s experience with a police officer due to the underlying intergenerational trauma.
Even though there isn’t a cure for people who’ve experienced trauma, there are many treatments; specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling, that provides opportunities for the people to help integrate their emotional response to trauma and focus on any resulting mental health conditions. Even though trauma isn’t just limited to physical impact and can also damage somebody emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, there is always room for healing and growth.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Onderko, K. (2020, April 22). What Is Trauma? – Definition, Symptoms, Responses, Types & Therapy. Retrieved from https://integratedlistening.com/what-is-trauma/