What incidents can be called trauma?

In an effort to answer the question, “Is what I went through trauma?”, people look for a list which classifies incidents as trauma or non-traumatic.  However, there is no such comprehensive list.  Given the intimate nature of trauma’s impact, we cannot simply create a list of what could be traumatic, thus determining if a person’s experience is or is not on the list.  Instead, trauma is a singular or recurrent incident which significantly shapes a person’s understanding of themselves and their environment in a dysfunctional way.

1st:  Trauma may be a one time incident, such as a car wreck or sexual assault.  Trauma may also occur repeatedly, such as sexual abuse by a family member over the course of years or hurtful, ongoing teasing of peers.

2nd:  Trauma impacts the way a person views themselves.  An example of this would be the person who has been assaulted struggling with persistent feelings of being unsafe after the incident.  The child who is sexually abused by a relative may struggle as an adult with the belief they are “dirty” or “shameful.”  In both cases, though the person may logically know what they are struggling with is not true, part of them still believes it.

3rd:  Trauma impacts the way a person views the world.  Using the examples above, the individual who has been assaulted may feel the world around them is not safe, that others will possibly victimize them, even though prior to the trauma they felt secure.  Additionally, the victim of sexual abuse, may expect to be harmed by others in relationships, leading them to either avoid intimacy or seek out relationships in which they will be hurt.  The latter of these confirms their view that love hurts because people are not safe.

Here are some questions to ask in determining whether an incident could be described as traumatic:

  • Was the person’s sense of self damaged?
  • Is the individual impaired in their ability to accurately assess and respond to their environment (hypervigilence, fight, flight or freeze)? 
  • Are the memories of the event held as re-experiences rather than a narrative?

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