OVERVIEW: WHAT IS TRAUMA?
Trauma widens: the definition, meaning, and personal associations. The DSM-5 lists it as experiencing or witnessing an “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” With the Greek origin, wound, the focus rests on an original pain, hurt, or incident. Think: war combat, car accident, assault, surgery.
Experts and authors write extensively on trauma, acknowledging the need to recognize both physical and emotional injuries. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk says trauma is a fact of life. Our lead clinicians remind us to be careful when approaching intensely difficult memories.
- A study says approximately 80% of older African Americans and Black Caribbeans reported experiencing a traumatic event at some point in their lifetime
- Another on the physical and mental health of intersex adults in the U.S. showed 53% of participants reporting fair/poor mental health
With an increased awareness of the term, there is an increased need for clarity around what trauma is and isn’t.
No matter the definition, length or size, clinical or personal, any trauma we experience deserves caring attention to heal. These leave an imprint on the body—changing the way we think, feel, and behave. Trauma shatters our sense of security, safety, and self. We might become fragmented, life moments or chapters splintered then rearranged. The emotional intensity accumulates, pasts colliding in the present, amounting to an unruly figure in the future.
Imagine: blood travels, muscles tense and freeze, agitation and vigilance strikes, overwhelm and lethargy flows. These are stress responses.
When defining trauma, there might be a focus on life after the event. There is a line: before, and after. Life before the fire and after the fire.
Dr. Gabor Maté notices the internal response once the pivotal event or series of events occur. Dr. Rheeda Walker describes traumas we inherit from our family, culture, and society. Melissa Febos writes on the lasting consequences of transformative moments, disconnects with the body. Trauma might be ongoing with no definitive end. Imagine: years living in invalidating social environments. You speak only when spoken to. Peers reject your ideas. Your brain stores these events. Lesson: my opinion holds little value.
How does your body process this emotional experience? What sentences will you stack to build a scene-by-scene account of what happened? What meaning do you recreate around this growing narrative? You'll answer these questions using The Trauma & Written Exposure Workbook.
NEXT STEPS: WORKING WITH TRAUMA
It might be difficult to put our experience into words. Trauma can disrupt functioning—images, sensations, reactions, and stress hormones fill and flood the brain. For instance, Dr. Daniel G. Amen performs brain scans, useful for uncovering patterns of mood, memory, and brain type.
A range of thoughts and feelings may arise when understanding trauma’s role in your life. A key is building a tolerance to approach the things that continue to trigger us. Another option is to follow Dr. Kristin Neff’s model of self-compassion as we process and make sense of life events. This slow exposure can help us widen our “window of tolerance”—Dr. Dan Siegel’s take on how our brain and body’s arousal and activation levels can function within or exceed a comforting state. We can learn our symptoms, noticing when and how our nervous system is activated.
Know that there are many options to cope and heal using evidence-based treatments in psychotherapy such as:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- CBT for Insomnia
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Written Exposure Therapy (WET)
These treatments are the basis of our products. Other styles of therapy include EMDR, narrative therapy, exposure therapy, schema therapy, and emotionally focused therapy. Therapists created The Trauma & Written Exposure Workbook, our product built on WET. Drs. Denise Sloan and Brian Marx developed this evidence-based treatment. You’ll practice exposure and the benefits of journaling to write about a single, highly-distressing target memory alongside the process of writing about the memory. Along the way, you’ll use distress tolerance skills from DBT. You might consider working with a therapist or setting new goals in treatment. Learn more about getting the most out of therapy here.
This article is not therapy or a replacement for therapy with a licensed professional. It is designed to provide information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is not engaged in rendering psychological, financial, legal, or other professional services. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, seek the services of a competent professional.