Understanding Trauma

By Jessica Callahan


Writing a blog post about trauma is like standing at the tip of an iceberg and acknowledging it’s just that, a small part of something MUCH larger. The lives this relates to have my greatest respect and compassion and hopefully are validated through my words.


Have you noticed the word “trauma” floating around more lately? It’s in the news, on social media and on book shelves. Trauma has moved from the confidential confines of therapy to being acknowledged on a broader level. As a therapist who supports survivors in the courageous hard work of healing, this is an exciting time. However, even as trauma becomes a part of daily conversation, there continues to be confusion about what that means.


What is Trauma?


For starters, imagine a picture of a target with the bullseye at the center and all the circles expanding out. Now imagine we wrote a capital “T” in the center. When thinking of trauma, it can be easy to recognize the “Big T” traumatic events at the center circle. We tend to agree that if someone has been assaulted, abused, in a car wreck, survived war, or witnessed a school shooting they have experienced trauma. But this is only part of the picture. To understand the experiences that deserve to be recognized as traumatic, and the survivors who deserve our acknowledgement and support, you need to look at the expanding circles around the bullseye and notice experiences less easily identified.


The definition I find most helpful is from Christine Courtois, “It’s Not You It’s What Happened to You.”


“Trauma is any event or experience (including witnessing) that is physically and/or psychologically overwhelming to the exposed individual.”


With this definition trauma is taken out of the box we might be used to and defined more personally by the impact it has on the individual living through it. This prevents minimizing and invalidating experiences by what “should” or “shouldn’t” be traumatic. This definition credits experiences such as emotional neglect, bullying, loss, infertility, humiliation, spiritual control, medical crises, and so many more as legitimate reasons that someone would be carrying layers of invisible wounds.


What about the impact of trauma?


Not only does what we call trauma need to be clarified but our expectations for those who survive these experiences needs to be adjusted. The impact of trauma is far reaching and affects most if not all areas of life (brain functioning, sense of safety, sense of self, relationships, academic/work performance, physical/emotional/mental health, etc.). If we only recognize the “Big T”, traumatic event at the center, we’ve missed most of the picture. Trauma is not only about what occurred but also about what was going on before and after (upbringing, resources, support, response, intervention, safety, etc.). The circles extending outside of the event have a critical role in healing and for some can be the area of impact that leaves the longest lasting hurt. All of this speaks to why trauma continues to color the ways someone experiences themselves, others and the world, leaving a survivor to feel locked in their trauma.


As the title reminds us, It’s Not You It’s What Happened to You.” The impact of trauma is real, and the act of healing is courageous. If we can all give credit to these experiences for each other and ourselves, hopefully we can lessen shame and realize we have everything to gain by supporting each other’s healing.


Thank you for having open eyes and hearts. Please check in next week for perspective on the process of healing and how loved ones can best offer support.