What do therapists mean when we talk about trauma?
One definition I like states that “psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which: “The individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.” (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60)
The important part of this definition in my practice is the emphasis on “unique individual experience”. You get to define which experiences are traumatic for you, whether or not it would impact others in the same manner. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your own emotional experience of the event.
Put more plainly, psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security and result in you feeling helpless, alone and vulnerable in a dangerous world.
Sometimes therapists talk about “big T trauma” and “little t trauma”. This is in no way meant to imply that any traumatic events are insignificant! I understand it as a way of expanding the definition and understanding of trauma to include things that may not be found within the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) definition. We are all familiar with examples of big T traumas: childhood sexual, physical or emotional abuse, natural disasters, war experiences, severe car accidents, rape. Little t traumas can be just as damaging, especially because they tend to occur over time, and build upon each other. Examples would be ongoing emotional abuse or neglect, experiences of shame, humiliation, being left out, bullied or ridiculed and feeling not cared for. The experience of growing up gay in a homophobic culture would be an example of this sort of trauma. All traumatic experiences affect how we experience the world around us, and our relationships with other people.
Psychological effects are likely to be most severe if the trauma is:
- Human caused
- Undergone in childhood
- Perpetrated by a caregiver
Impact can be ameliorated by existence of a support system at the time of the traumatic event. When you do not have family or friends to help you to make sense of the event, normal development is interrupted and various symptoms occur.
Therapy is crucial for recovering from the impact of traumatic events. Time alone does not heal all wounds, no matter what that old trope claims!
I found a passage from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseni to be a striking depiction of what unresolved trauma can feel like, even decades later:
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.