Understanding and Overcoming Trauma

By Julia Catlin

Today, “trauma” is a buzzword. It’s tossed around daily as if it were a simple ritual like brushing your teeth or going to school. “I have PTSD after that sex ed. class; I never want to hear Mr. Smith talk about that again,” or “Dude, please don’t traumatize me with a recap of last week’s episode on American Horror Story.”

Trauma is a lot more complex than that, and the first thing we should do is understand what is and what is not trauma.  Cutting edge authorities like Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score and Judith Cohen, co-creator of Trauma-Focused CBT, are helping to re-shape what trauma looks like. As a society, we still have a long way to go in understanding trauma itself and how to heal from it. In a sense, it can be easier to pick out what isn’t trauma than what is, so let’s start there.

Trauma is not:
-Getting a bad grade in class.
-Not finding your favorite sweater on clearance.
-Your caregiver telling you to eat the peas you left on your plate.
-Hearing about your best friend’s grandma dying.
-Spilling your lunch all over the place in the middle of the cafeteria.
-Falling down on the sidewalk and scraping your knee.
-Someone cutting you off in traffic.

In a 2012 article on PsychologyToday.com titled “What is trauma,” Dr. Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., provides the concept of trauma revolving around the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly known as PTSD. He has an interesting viewpoint: that trauma can happen to those who are already vulnerable or trauma can happen to anyone. Both viewpoints are correct. So, what is real trauma?

Trauma is:

-Being in an abusive relationship, involving emotional, physical, or psychological abuse.
-Seeing news footage of a bus accident of which you or a close loved one were a victim.
-Witnessing a shooting.
-Having an authoritative figure, such as a boss, teacher, or superior, berate you, embarrass you, or question your worth as a person.
-Involvement in uncomfortable sexual acts as an adult or child, with or without consent.
-Experiencing the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one (natural causes or accident).

One of the most common symptoms of trauma is avoidance, which is why so many people who have suffered from trauma seem “fine” or “okay” to others.

Knowing what does and does not constitute trauma can make a difference in the way we communicate with others. One caring person can make a difference in healing from tragic events. If we are able to identify the symptoms, then we can be the person who helps that person move from “suffering” to “healing.” We are moving from labeling people as victims of trauma. Instead of victims, they are survivors.

How do we shift our life from survival to something more fulfilling?  Until trauma is addressed and processed, life may feel just like that - survival.  Making it through one more day is an accomplishment, and yet it is still exhausting.  

Thriving, not surviving, is the turning point – rather than let the trauma define us, we become resilient. We don’t forget the trauma, but we are able to talk about it as if it happened to someone else. We become objective and let go of the pain. We have hope about life going forward and the trauma no longer prevents us from moving toward a better life. This is called resilience. Sometimes trauma survivors actually experience something called post-traumatic growth: they become stronger after having experienced something awful, and they are able to make meaning of the tragedy.  

If you’re interested in reading more about post-traumatic growth, a great place to start is Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl takes us through what it is like living in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany in World War II. Through his story, we explore the ugliness and the beauty of the horrific conditions he and many others experienced, and how he managed to come out on the other side, thriving.  As one of my mentors once said: “The only way out is through.” No matter the trauma, everyone has the potential to grow – and thrive.