What is Psychological Trauma?

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • We have become accustomed to hearing words like trauma or traumatic event. We have an intuitive sense about what it means and many of us feel we have direct experience of trauma. You might find it surprising to learn that some experts are still debating the true meaning of the term trauma and we only have to look back to the 1980s to see why.


    When the diagnostic category of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was introduced in 1980, trauma was defined as ‘an event outside the realm of normal human experience.’ At the time events such as war and natural disasters were considered outside of normal human experience, despite the fact that millions of people were regularly caught up in both. Things changed fairly quickly and trauma came to include rape, bereavement, natural and manmade disasters, traffic accidents, muggings, in fact any event that is accompanied by fear, horror and helplessness.

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    Like stress, we cannot necessarily predict that a particular event will be traumatic. The same event, involving two different people in the same way, can be experienced differently. So for an event to be traumatic, a person must perceive it as such, and their reaction must be deeply upsetting and difficult to bear, to the extent they may experience a massive shift in their beliefs and the way they view life.


    We are starting to learn more about the nature of certain events as to how they affect people. These are generalizations and, as previously mentioned, we can’t make assumptions about the ways in which an individual might respond. Even so, we have learned that single event natural disasters that do not involve other people are generally less traumatic than say a physical or sexual assault. Another important feature seems to be our sense of control in the event. A road traffic accident, for example, may involve people trapped inside a vehicle. The person who helps them out is likely to experience fewer traumas than the person who is trapped.


    So while it is not possible to predict that a specific event will have a specific traumatic effect, we can say that complex events tend to affect people more seriously, especially if other people are involved in its cause. Equally, PTSD is not an inevitable outcome of trauma, although we do know it can sometimes take months or years to develop.


    Yet trauma is not abnormal. After a particularly stressful time we might spend a great deal of time feeling hurt, reflecting on the incident, talking about it, even dreaming of it. This doesn’t mean we need treatment. In fact most people feel the pain, learn to cope and manage to move on. It is only when this process doesn’t occur and we become trapped will treatment become valuable or necessary.

Published On: January 10, 2014