What is Trauma?

What is Trauma?

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

– Bessel Van der Kolk,

The Body Keeps The Score

According to Tara Brach, psychologist and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington D.C., the definition of trauma is:

“…when we have encountered an out of control, frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.”

Some experts say trauma is an experience that is anything less than nurturing that impacts an individual’s worldview and/or view of themselves. This means it can, and will, look different for every person. This also means every person will have different responses to trauma.  

You might be thinking, “that is a very broad definition – what are examples of trauma that I can see in my own or others’ lives?” Common examples that many are familiar with are as individualized as physical or sexual abuse and as global as a natural disaster. Neglect and psychological abuse are becoming more widely communicated as traumatic experiences as well, but did you know that gaslighting, bullying/cyberbullying, racism, witness of abuse/neglect, and car accidents are considered traumatic experiences as well?

An interesting and monumental study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a significant connection to childhood trauma and compromised health and wellbeing across the lifespan. This study is known as the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study. Participants were recruited between the years of 1995 and 1997 and many have been involved in long-term follow ups. The 10 ACEs that were surveyed during this study are as follows:

Household Dysfunction

–        Substance abuse

–        Parental separation/divorce

–        Mental illness

–        Battered mother

–        Criminal behavior


–        Psychological

–        Physical

–        Sexual


–        Emotional

–        Physical

This study found a significant correlation with not only mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder/response, and maladaptive personality development, but there was also a higher likelihood that the individual was (and would continue to be) obese, have heart-related issues, intellectual disability, cancer, and chronic lung disease. This population was more likely to engage in activities or make decisions that negatively impacted their health such as: substance abuse/chemical dependency, unsafe sexual practices, and suicide.

For much of this blog, I have discussed the impacts trauma has on childhood, but people experience trauma across the lifespan, right? The developmental stage of a person when they experience trauma impacts how they respond to it – physically and neurologically. Birth to age 5 is a crucial time for healthy development in a person’s life. It is at this time that a child’s brain is growing the most and they are learning deeply ingrained attunement from caregivers – before they can even speak or encode long-term memories! If at this time, a baby/child’s needs are met regularly and without harm, their brain is much more likely to grow exponentially. If a baby/child’s needs are not met consistently (such as in a neglect situation or if caregivers are inconsistent such as when a caregiver is unable to find childcare while they are at work or a child is in a poor foster care situation), their tiny brains tell them they are unsafe which then impedes their neurological growth (Perry, 2016).

As a child grows older, their brains are still highly susceptible to damage and stunted growth, but the more neural connections they have (e.g, as they grow older and their brains develop in a healthy manner), the less severe the damage is likely to be to their development if they have had attuned relationships and neurological growth up to that point. This means that a teen who has experienced their first traumatic event is likely to be more resilient than a toddler who has experienced trauma. This teen will experience the traumatic event and will likely, mostly, recover. The toddler will require significantly more intervention to recover to the same place that the teen is likely to. This also means that an adult who is experiencing their first traumatic event is also likely to have more neurologic resilience than the teen. However, this is not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” moment, Nancy C. Andreason, MD, PhD says in her book, The Broken Brain. Every person responds differently to trauma and each of our unique brain chemistries react differently as well. Some are significantly more sensitive to stress than others.

Lori Schiller is the author of The Quiet Room — A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness, and an active advocate for peer support services, education about schizophrenia, and overall mental health awareness. She writes that she had a lovely childhood and was highly supported by her parents. Lori also attended Tufts University and excelled. But when she was 17 years old, she began hearing voices and it wasn’t long before she had her first psychotic break and psychiatric hospitalization leading to her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. While she did not experience adverse childhood experiences, according to her memoir, her unique brain chemistry caused her to begin experiencing auditory hallucinations when she was faced with the stress of high school and entering college. This is an example of the other end of the spectrum in which trauma is not a main factor in her psychotic break, but her brain chemistry made her susceptible to it.

Trauma has become a hot topic amongst the counseling, psychiatric, and medical fields and screening for various trauma indicators are making their way into even routine exams. (I recently went to the gynecologist and they handed me a sheet of paper with questions about sexual assault on it and instructed me to simply say yes or no rather than have them outright ask me. The purposes of this were to get that information without potentially putting me in harm’s way if an abuser had accompanied me to the appointment and was listening outside.) Publications and trainings are plentiful and some are offered at low-cost or even free to anyone in the community interested in learning more about it. Trauma is not, and should not be considered, something that is exclusive to counseling, psychiatry, or psychology. Trauma is physiological, neurochemical, and neurobiological. Trauma is expensive for society due to the long-term health impacts, perpetuation of abusive and neglectful behaviors, impact on military service and reintegrating into society, homelessness, poverty rates, and more.


Lastly, I want to leave you with a quote:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.


Resources for learning more about trauma