What is Trauma Posted March 1, 2013 by Heal for Life


Trauma can and does happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, culture, religion, size, location, or social and professional status. Trauma can profoundly change the way children, adolescents and adults see themselves and the world. Although there are many definitions of trauma, it can be described as any experience which the brain believes is a threat to physical or psychological safety that invokes feelings of extreme terror, powerlessness and utter hopelessness. A potentially traumatising event is any event that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope. This can be a one-off event or on-going in nature. (Nijenhuis, van der Hart, Steel, 2004,Terr 1991)

The Heal For Life definition of trauma is: more emotion than the brain can handle and is perceived as life threatening. We believe that the trauma must be perceived by the brain as life threatening in order for it to have a devastating impact on brain development and we work from this principle in our healing model. We believe that what is real to the brain of an individual is real for that person and we believe that each person has their own experience of reality. Thus, as stated by Giller, “a traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope, and leaves that person fearing death, annihilation, mutilation, or psychosis. The individual may feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss.” (Giller, 1999)

Trauma affects everyone differently. If a person receives loving support from significant people in their lives then the impact is greatly lessened. A loving response to the trauma is critical in terms of the long term impact. It is common for people of any age to experience feelings of fear, terror, horror, anxiety, anger, grief, loss, guilt and survival guilt, helplessness, and eventually depression. Sometimes, what is traumatic for a child may seem of no real significance to an adult and may even appear to be ‘harmless’. “Life threatening” has very different meanings for a one year old compared to an adult.

Understanding the impacts of trauma is enormously helpful when working with survivors of childhood trauma. Reactions to trauma are individual and difficult to predict. They are dependent on many factors such as how the person was parented, previous traumas, family genetics etc. However, there are many behaviours found to be common to survivors of trauma.

Trauma related behaviours:
Terr (1991) says that repeated memories, repetitive behaviours, trauma-specific fears, and changed attitudes about people, life and the future are the four main characteristics of childhood trauma that persist throughout life regardless of any eventual diagnosis. Some of the symptoms of someone having experienced a traumatic event may include:

  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Physical pain
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fear of people in power
  • Addictions
  • Depression
  • Mental illness
  • Loss of hope
  • Self harming, suicidal
  • Poor relationships
  • Unsafe world
  • Feelings of not being good enough
  • High anxiety levels

ADDITIONAL NOTES: Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. (Pearlman and Saakvitne, 1995, as cited in Giller, 1999)

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