What “counts” as trauma?
Trauma has become a colloquial buzzword that varies greatly in definition and, inevitably, gets misused. As many trauma survivors are attempting to understand their own painful experiences, they wonder how trauma is defined and seek to substantiate their event.
Some people feel shame or frustration when they suffer through a painful experience and an overly narrow view of trauma suggests their pain is not “big enough.” Is this considered “trauma”? It doesn’t feel significant enough. It’s not like I was almost killed. On the flip side, some individuals feel invalidated when trauma is too liberally applied to other stressful, but not deeply earth-shattering, experiences (“I have PTSD from getting through this mall traffic!”). If everything is “traumatic,” then nothing is; the word loses its meaning.
Per the current diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder, a qualifying trauma is considered to be directly experiencing, witnessing, or learning of a life-threatening or violent event, or exposure to the aftermath of a violent event such as handling bodies. The events that fall into these criteria are those we often think of when it comes to trauma: natural disasters, threats of or attempts to harm/kill, accidents, major medical events, loved ones’ violent deaths, combat or emergency scenes, sexual assault, and more. We can call these types of experiences “Big-T Trauma.” Above all else, one’s safety and survival are called into question, and that must be reconciled in the aftermath.
However, this formal definition does not mean that other events can’t also have a significant impact on our story and emotional landscape. Many experiences are not life-threatening but are nonetheless painful and affect us deeply. Estrangement, emotional abuse, divorce or a difficult breakup, racial discrimination, moving to an unfamiliar place, struggling with fertility, watching our children suffer, being bullied, and much more fall into this category. All of these are what we might consider “little-t traumas”; though they would not place someone in the formal category of PTSD, their impact can be similarly substantial.
How do I know if my experience was trauma? To understand the role a stressful experience played in your life, consider your sense of life “before” and life “after” the event. Are there beliefs you held, dreams you had, traits you possessed, relationships you shared, that changed in a substantial way because of this event? If something significantly called into question the way you once understood your life, yourself, and the world to be, that something counts as trauma. For example, your expectations for life may have included bearing several biological children, but you learn you are infertile; this is shattering news and a trauma to contend with. If you can see how painful experiences shaped the chapters and themes of your life story, they matter. Years of racial discrimination or social rejection may have inevitably shaped your identity, your relationships, and the direction your life leads. If you have struggled to make sense of what happened, and thoughts, feelings, and memories related to your stressful experience(s) keep coming back to you, that experience counts.
Another consideration is that the threshold for trauma will be different for different people because we each are comprised of unique life experiences and vulnerabilities. What deeply impacts me might not affect you as significantly. In this sense, what is considered a trauma is subjective.
Ultimately, only you can know the effect a stressful event had, and you alone have the power to judge whether it was traumatic for you. Do not let anyone minimize your pain or question your reactions. Trust your experience; honoring yourself is crucial as you move forth in healing, whether it is from Trauma or trauma.