A man looks out at the ocean behind text that reads trauma defined

Trauma Defined

Trauma. Not many conversations go by these days without mention of this buzz word. I have heard trauma defined in many different ways. Is it certain types of events? If so, why do some people walk away with post-traumatic symptoms and other do not? Can we put it into categories along a continuum? If so, why do these experiences affect some people and not others?

I first heard trauma defined this way — by categories. I’ll explain these categories and then I’ll answer clearly what many are asking: what is trauma, really?

Categories of Trauma

I learned that there are three types of trauma: episodes, environmental, and secondary.

  1. Episodes of trauma is what comes to mind first for most people. Examples of this include physical and sexual abuse, active military duty, intimate partner violence, natural disasters, and car accidents. These episodes have a clear beginning and end and could be plotted on a timeline.
  2. Environmental trauma typically happens in childhood and generally comes from a lack of feeling safe, a lack of feeling loved, or both. This can occur when a child becomes lost in the midst of family chaos, or when a child becomes the emotional support for parents (hint: it should be the other way around). Other examples include parents who are overly punitive or overly permissive, parents who are emotionally unattuned to their children, or the child feeling the emotional burden of family instability. This “type of trauma” is so complex that at Dawn we offer trainings to prevent it.
  3. Secondary trauma concludes the list as the third category created. Secondary trauma occurs when someone is exposed to chronic stress through work or caregiving for another human being with intense needs. For example, first responders, trauma therapists, and nurses often end up with secondary trauma due to the stress of what they see and hear all day long. Foster parents are also vulnerable to secondary trauma as caregivers for children with intense needs. In short, secondary trauma is about chronic low to mid-grade stress.

Now that we’ve covered the “categories of trauma,” realize that classifying trauma into one of these categories doesn’t matter anyway. These categories still leave us asking why some people have post-traumatic symptoms and others do not, and they do not explain why two people can have completely different reactions to the same episode.

Finally Defining Trauma

Trauma defined is this: the perception of threat weighted against what resources we have available. So there are two pieces to this equation: the perceived threat and the resources. Let’s look at perceived threat first.

The perception of threat is about how intensely we perceive the event. Take this example: two bank tellers experience a bank robbery. Bank teller #1 thinks, “I’m going to die today.” Bank teller #2 thinks, “I’m going to follow protocol, and everything will be ok.” Bank teller #1 had a perception of death and bank teller #2 had a perception of possible injury but did not perceive it as likely. Same event. Different perceptions. When evaluating how one might experience an event, ask if there is a perception of death or just possible but unlikely injury? A person’s answer to these questions will reflect on whether an event might register as trauma.

This leads us to the second part of the equation: the resources we have available. A resource in this context is what moves us to safety. For bank teller #2, the resource was the protocol. Bank teller #1 did not have a resource, resulting in a dynamically different experience. Remember environmental trauma? The reason that children can have post-traumatic symptoms from the environment is that they cannot keep themselves safe, so they have a greater perceived threat. Grownups are the greatest resource children have for their safety. If their parents cannot provide a sense of safety, both emotional and physical, then children feel un-resourced. Children who have this sense of safety from a grown-up can go through the same experiences and fare much better than children without.

Overcoming Trauma

Remember, trauma and its effects are about the perception of threat weighted against what resources are available. At Dawn, we have a strong desire to support people in overcoming post-traumatic symptoms and to prevent these symptoms in families. This is the reason that we offer support through community awareness and trainings. Check out our website for more information, or request services today.