What is Trauma?

Have you ever struggled to know how to respond to someone who survived a traumatic event? Have you ever wondered, too, "what is trauma, and what makes an event traumatic?" This question is important as we struggle to find words to adequately respond to family members, friends, or strangers at a coffee shop. This week, we offer our VetGR perspective on this question.

Objectively, we might define trauma in the following way: Trauma—"a continuum of variably negative life events directly experienced as threats to survival and self-preservation and occurring over the lifespan." Examples might include war, fires, bombings, being a crime victim, witnessing crime, genocide, loss, illness, rape, poverty, divorce, natural disaster, and so on. Each event tends to have its own thumbprint on human hearts, minds, and bodies. Trauma can also include events accepted as “normal” because they are endorsed and perpetuated by our cultural institutions. So, objectively, we might decide "traumatic events" are those considered by a majority of people in our society as "traumatic."

However, trying to define an event as traumatic also involves the subjective experience of a survivor. A single event can be experienced by one person as positive and by another as negative. Consider the following illustration: Take for example a situation where a house burns down. One person may consider the benefit of the insurance settlement of replacement costs, watching a new house being built, new furniture, increased evaluation, and so on. While someone else, who had formed a strong attachment to the house as their favorite place in the world, would experience the loss very differently, negatively, and traumatically.

Consider, too, a more dramatic case. Imagine two people who both experienced walking down the same street toward the Twin Towers on 9/11. Imagine they both experienced seeing the Towers collapse, and they both saw the cloud of smoke and dust quickly engulfing them with little chance to avoid it. Imagine one of those persons had the opportunity to turn, run down an alley, and out of the smoke and dust, that they could follow the stampeding crowd down the sidewalk and eventually get out of it. They had some control; they could exercise the flight response. Now also imagine the second person’s situation was different. Imagine they were responsible for a child they could not find, or for whatever reason, they could not just run out of the smoke. Alternatively, even more severe, imagine they were initially walking toward the lobby of one of the Twin Towers to meet an elderly parent in a wheelchair. They would want to move against the crowd and toward the danger but now were unable to and frozen with fear. Objectively, the external facts might be identical for these two persons—they were both walking down the same street; they both saw the Towers burning; they both experienced the cloud of smoke and dust; they both felt the fight or flight response, which hit them about the same time. Most would agree that this was a traumatic event for both of them. However, their subjective experiences would be different. Therefore, growth and reconstruction after the event might look different for them; one might be considered "resilient" and strong, while the other, surviving the same event, might struggle for quite some time.

These examples illustrate some of the challenges in trying to define trauma while only considering objective "facts." Hopefully, these examples also illustrate how predicting the effects of traumatic events presents several variables and difficulties. 

At VetGR, we believe each combat veteran will feel the effects of combat differently and for different reasons. We believe in the importance of listening to each veteran's particular personal trauma narrative. And, consequently, we believe each veteran's journey of growth and reconstruction will be as unique as their thumbprint. We are committed to walking that journey with them as they find their path; at VetGR, this is our mission. 

Consider joining us at VetGR as we serve combat veterans and their families by resurrecting purpose and significance in their lives. Donate today.