What is trauma, really? This is a difficult question to answer because it's subjective. In other words, what may be traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another. We know this can be confusing, especially if you have an idea of what a traumatic event looks like. Don't worry! In this blog post, we'll explore why subjectivity matters when it comes to trauma and discuss some of the implications of that.
What exactly is trauma?
In the field of psychology, we have a formal definition of trauma. It's written in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) because it's the main criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD. We call this definition, "Big T" trauma. According to the DSM-5, the formal definition is this:
Exposure to death, threatened death, actual/serious injury, or actual/threatened sexual violence in the following ways:
Direct exposure (you are the one who experiences any of the above)
Witnessing (you see someone in front of you who experiences any of the above)
Learning it happened to a loved one (someone close to you experienced it and you found out about it)
Indirect exposure to details (you watch a video, hear about an event on the news, etc.)
Now, this is the formal definition. But it doesn't mean that other things can't be defined as trauma. In fact, we often see people have similar trauma reactions to what's called "Little t" trauma. Things like racism, a bad divorce, workplace hostility, and other things come in. While they don't fit the traditional definition of "Big T" trauma, the key is this: people have similar trauma responses.
What is a trauma response?
A trauma response is anything that makes your nervous system activate as a way to help you survive. You may know this to be fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (yup, there are four different F's!). Fight means you intend to combat the danger head on, flight means that you are going to run away from the danger, freeze means that your system stops moving in the face of danger, and fawn means that you are going to be kind to the danger in hopes that it doesn't hurt you. All of these things are responses for self-preservation, or the way we protect ourselves from harm.
You might even notice other things that come up in your body as it revs up your nervous system to act. Your heart might start racing, your thoughts might become narrowed (or even blank), you might start crying, or feel yourself get really tense. These are all messages your body is sending to you to say, "Hey, I don't feel safe right now."
And that's because trauma is always about a threat to our safety, whether it's physical, emotional, or mental.
When does subjectivity matter?
Subjectivity matters when it comes to trauma because everyone experiences things differently. And that means that what may be traumatic for one person may not be for another. When two friends are in the backseat of a car when it crashes together, it's possible that only one of them will fear driving in the future. When two siblings experience their parents having a very messy, angry divorce, it's possible that only one of them will walk away feeling like they can't trust romantic partners in the future.
It's also possible that trauma responses might look different because people experience trauma at different degrees. Take the friends in the car crash, for example. Maybe one friend grows more cautious and double-checks everything before they hit the road and the other might refuse to be a passenger in a car again. And with the two sibling example, maybe one sibling vets their romantic partners really carefully in the future and the other one completely avoids their parents and romantic connection.
People are so complex. It shouldn't be a surprise that trauma is equally as complex.
So...anything is trauma?
No, not anything. But a lot of things can be defined as trauma because it's such a subjective experience. And that's okay! We need to remember that everyone experiences the world differently and give people the grace to define their own experiences.
In therapy, what really matters is how you experienced something. Your therapist is not the person to judge whether or not your trauma is legitimate (or if it fits the Big T definition). What matters is if you experience something as traumatic. Your experience of something is more important than whether or not it fits some fancy definition. A good therapist recognizes this.
What does therapy do for trauma?
Like we said, a good therapist knows that trauma is subjective. You don't have to be diagnosed with PTSD to go to therapy for it (and you don't have to walk into therapy with the expectation that you will be diagnosed with it).
Trauma makes our brains think that we are unsafe. A therapist is going to look at how a person has been impacted by their trauma (i.e., where this person feels unsafe, what happens when they don't feel safe, what feeling "activated" looks like, etc.). Therapists are trained to help a person process their trauma and learn ways of coping with activation. A good therapist will work with you and help you live a more authentic, flexible life. Healing from trauma is possible.
At Cultured Space, our therapists help clients do just that. We provide a trauma-informed, anti-racist, and LGBTQ+ affirming space because we believe that your experience matters. Not to mention we also provide 100% virtual therapy options! No matter what you've been through, we see you and we're here to help. Learn more about our therapists or schedule an appointment today to see how our team can help you heal from your trauma.
We're here for you when you're ready!