What Do We Mean When We Say “Trauma”?

posted in: Blog, Neuroscience, Stress, Trauma

Siddharth Ashvin Shah, M.D., M.P.H.
Founder and CEO

Our ordinary language definition of traumatic stress: Distress that still aches

Greenleaf, dogImagine you and a friend are going down a sidewalk and a dog lunges at both of you. For you, the incident may be forgotten in a matter of minutes. Your friend, however, has heart palpitations and then he stays in a funk for an hour. Why is this? Perhaps your friend was bitten by someone else’s pet a week ago. The rabies injections were not pleasant.

Whatever the reason, his nervous system is distressed, and it still aches. We would say that he has experienced trauma.

Let’s look at three different ways we can use this word: in everyday casual use, many people say something is “traumatic” when something shook their sense of stability or something freaked them out.

Historically, we get the word trauma from ancient Greece where it meant “wound” or “injury.” And finally, for a technical definition, we would say that traumatic stress is the bio-psycho-social responses to acute or protracted negative events that disrupt normal emotional, psychological, or behavioral functioning.

Now let’s simplify: trauma is, therefore, the negative effects on our emotions, psychology, or behavior due to an event or multiple experiences. It means that someone is suffering from at least a trace of stress to which the mind — for whatever reason — has not coped. Trauma is distress that still aches.

For example, if someone pokes you in the forearm gently and no trace of physical pain remains a second later, then the poke has not lingered — there is zero trauma. If five seconds later, you have an ache, even a small ache, then there has been a trauma. A tiny one, yes. The person who poked you might be completely unaware they caused trauma. And if you told that person, “Hey, that poke still bothers me,” they might say you’re hyper-sensitive. But if you perceive pain, then either your nerve endings are still physically irritated from the poke…or you are psychologically triggered by the way you were poked such that your nervous system produces the chemical signals of irritation that you perceive as aching in your forearm. Either way, you ache. Either way, you have experienced trauma.

Most people experience trauma at some point in their lives. We often recognize those experiences in retrospect. That moment of reflection that sometimes goes, “why did I do/feel/say something so unlike me? …Aha. I am still reacting to that painful time.” In the great majority of cases, having traumatic stress does not suggest having a disorder such as PTSD. To qualify for a disorder, our functioning is not only affected, but the symptoms result in life chaos (hence the word dis-order).

Traumatic stress can resolve naturally over time. That being said, studies and experience show that recovery is accelerated when we take an active approach based on good sense and evidence.

The trauma in our lives and the lives of others deserves respect and care.

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