What is Trauma?

One of my passions is helping individuals who have experienced trauma, or are experiencing PTSD, to overcome that trauma. To put it more simply I love the help people move from Post-traumatic stress into Post-traumatic growth. So, what exactly is trauma, and what makes an event traumatic?

Trauma is an emotional or psychological response to an event that is experienced as deeply distressing or disturbing; it could be an event that is directly experienced or witnessed. For example if one person were to be involved in a car accident and another were to witness that car accident, the event could be traumatic for both. Trauma can also be caused by one incident (acute) or a series of incidences (chronic) over an extended period of time.

Traumatic events are different for each and every person. What may be experienced as traumatic for one person, may not be traumatic for another. One individual may experience trauma in the form of a military deployment, another may experience the trauma of divorce, a third may experience the trauma of child loss; none of these is “more legitimate” or “more real” than the other. Each and every one is a trauma and has an effect on the individual experiencing it.

Now, within trauma a whole bunch of “stuff” is going on within the brain. To provide an explanation on this I’m including a video on “Trauma and the Brain” by NHS Lanarkshire EVA Services.

Dr. Vincent Felitti

Dr. Felitti’s work has changed the way we look at childhood trauma, chronic stress, and trauma in general. The ACE study showed how we as humans “convert childhood traumatic emotional experiences into organic disease later in life” (APB Speakers, Aug 28, 2018). In the video Dr. Felitti speaks specifically about obesity, though these correlations can also be seen within substance use disorder and many other forms of addictive behavior.

Trigger Warning for the video. He does speak about incest, sexual abuse, assault, and other traumatic events. None of these are discussed in detail.

A renowned physician and researcher, Dr. Vincent J. Felitti is one of the world's foremost experts on childhood trauma. Leading the charge in research into how adverse childhood experiences affect adults, he is co-principal investigator of the internationally recognized Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, a long-term, in-depth, analysis of over 17,000 adults.

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is a newer area of study that looks at how the traumas we face may change the way our genes are expressed. This is a good article written by the BBC that explores this area of study. It’s somewhat long, and definitely worth the read.

BBC Article: Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations?

The take away that I’d like to highlight is that it’s not hopeless. Though some individuals may be at increased risk for certain issues; these can be addressed and “undone” through use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Mindfulness.