What Constitutes Trauma?
In this article, I am going to define trauma from a clinical perspective, but also give insight into how discernment is needed when it comes to discussing experiences of trauma, as people understand and process experiences differently.This can result in some confusion for those who have experienced trauma and try to relate it to others, or those who may have experienced trauma and perhaps not realized it because their fundamental understanding of trauma didn’t allow them to recognize it.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is known as a mental health condition in which one is plagued by an experience from their past that continues to impact their ability to function in the present.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), these experiences involve a situation in which there was “actual or perceived death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” Defining what a “traumatic” event is, however, can be a bit dicey as everyone experiences trauma a bit differently.
There is a neurological aspect when it comes to the way that individuals process trauma. As Kalin (2021) mentioned, “Hyperconnectivity between regions of the default mode network and the frontoparietal network,” seemed to be an indicator for an increased trauma response, however, these exact responses are still not known as the brain is a complex organ and much more research is needed to fully discover what causes PTSD.
The important thing to know, however, is that some people seem to have natural neurological resiliencies that can help prevent PTSD, while others may be more naturally inclined to develop PTSD based on how their brain has naturally developed or changed due to past traumatic experiences.
Just because someone experiences trauma doesn’t mean that they are going to later have flashbacks or nightmares from that event, but on the flipside, what might seem like a stressful event to one person may have more long-lasting effects on another.
For example, two people may be in the backseat of the same automobile when it wrecks and sustain no injuries, but both may walk away from the situation feeling differently. This is because of differences in personalities, experiences, culture and neurobiology.
One of the individuals in the backseat may have been concerned while the accident was happening, but perhaps they’ve been in similar wrecks before or they were able to hone in on factors that helped them feel like even though the situation was ideal, the car wasn’t going at a speed that would result in anyone being ejected from the vehicle or they felt they had an advantage being in the backseat because they were farther away from the point of impact.
This person’s nervous system may not have been as activated and thus they might not have perceived the accident as life threatening. For the other person in the backseat, however, perhaps they were never in a car accident before, nor did they have the advantage point of noticing the vehicle’s speed. This person’s nervous system may have been more activated and thus the accident may have had more of an impact on them. Later, when both of the individuals recount the accident, the one who was able to remain calmer may describe it as a “fender bender” while the other may describe it as a harrowing experience.
This can lead to invalidation for the individual who was more afraid because the one who was able to remain calmer might try to explain the reasons why there was no reason to be afraid, while the individual who was more activated might be unable to relate that to their experience as they weren’t able to process that during the accident.
As Kolk (2014) described, when one goes through a traumatic event, their body holds onto that sensory experience which then gets reactivated during other stressful events. The body does this to help the individual recognize a potentially dangerous situation and then give them the means to avoid or escape that dangerous situation.
Let’s say, for example, that I am walking through nature when I come across some blueberries. Now, because I like blueberries, I stop to pick some when suddenly I see a bobcat. My body is going to start the flight, fight, or freeze response to try to help me survive this encounter with this bobcat and I’m going to start feeling my heart rate go up, tension in my body, and a desire to run.
Now let’s say that the bobcat runs away miraculously, and I am safe, although still shaken. Months later I might be at the store with a friend and start to experience severe anxiety while standing in the produce isle. Perhaps I’m able to register that it’s because I see blueberries and am reminded of seeing the bobcat, but perhaps not.
Perhaps I simply feel anxious all of the sudden and want to leave, much to the bewilderment of the friend I am shopping with. Later, my friend may tell me that the shopping experience was average and there was no reason to be anxious, however, because of reasons I could or couldn’t explain, I perceived the shopping experience as more dire than they did.
Dissociative episodes are common when one experiences trauma. A dissociative episode is when an individual starts to experience difficulty thinking and processing what’s happening around them and may forget where they are or what they’re currently doing.
The reason for this is because when our flight, fight, or freeze response is activated, the part of our brain responsible for executive functioning, the pre-frontal cortex, goes offline and we aren’t able to process what’s happening around us as we typically do. Because of this, sometimes we are able to recognize why we are having an anxiety response and sometimes we aren’t.
From these examples, we can see how past traumatic experiences can influence current experiences in an adverse way and begin to understand how repeated experiences of trauma throughout one’s lifetime can magnify stress experienced in current situations.
When we have been through multiple traumatic experiences, it might result in our flight, fight, or freeze response being more activated than the average person, like a thermostat stuck in a high setting and keeping things constantly warm.
Some people and practitioners recognize this as Complex Post-Traumatic Disorder, although the term isn’t recognized in the DSM-5. For individuals who experience this, compromising situations may appear even more dangerous as their biology is working on several past experiences of trauma.
For example, let’s say that someone is giving a group presentation and experiencing performance anxiety while doing it. Now, public speaking is considered the most common phobia in our culture, however, for someone with a history of Complex PTSD it can be even more challenging, because their past may include instances of being physically or verbally abused by someone toxic for saying certain things out loud.
For this person, instead of thinking that they are going to look foolish and embarrass themselves if they don’t present their information well enough during the presentation, they instead might think to themselves that if they don’t do well enough on the presentation, something truly awful is going to happen.
From these two instances, we can see that past experiences may exacerbate the current experience of anxiety and create a more traumatic experience for the individual than someone who hasn’t experienced as much trauma may have perceived. If we can begin to see this, we can also begin to understand who other conditions, such as depression and generalized anxiety disorder can also influence how one perceives an event and further their anxiety.
That’s why it’s important when discussing a traumatic experience to practice empathy and understanding that, while we might not fully understand why the individual experience peril to the extent that they did, more than likely there was a good reason.
In conclusion, everyone experiences life on a continuum. Just because someone experiences a traumatic event doesn’t mean they’re going to develop PTSD, although they might be shaken up for a couple of weeks afterwards.
On the other hand, a stressful experience that might be seen as some as not being traumatic can actually result in long-standing anxiety responses that would benefit from deeper exploration. In such instances, it’s good to talk to a professional who is able to practice a non-judgmental stance and who is able to explore the potential that general anxiety may be rooted in past traumatic experiences.
van der Kolk, B. A. (1996). The body keeps score: Approaches to the psychobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.)
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
“Feng Shui”, Courtesy of Peggy_Marco, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Blueberries”, Courtesy of Congerdesign, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Smashed Up”, Courtesy of PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Bobcat”, Courtesy of Majic9999, Pixabay.com, CC0 License