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Let’s Be Honest – What is Trauma?

Lately, I can’t turn on my phone or open my laptop without bumping into the word “trauma”. It seems like everyone is either talking about trauma or is traumatized themselves. As a psychotherapist who works primarily with trauma, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I am grateful and relieved that we are finally moving away from dehumanizing the behaviour of traumatized people, realizing that most maladaptive behaviours are, in fact, trauma responses. On the other hand, I still think that how trauma lives in the body and what is required for holistic healing that is safe, is often misunderstood. I have had many a session where a client was encouraged to take total responsibility for what happened to them, or was led on a “healing” journey with a paraprofessional still acting from a traumatized state themselves.

So, what is trauma? The answer, even in looking for the dictionary definition of the word, is that it’s vague. Trauma is defined both as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury” and, “an emotional upset” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. And, I would agree: trauma can be anything from the most catastrophic life event, to not living up to the career goals you’ve set for yourself.

The DSM-5 (which is the diagnostic manual for mental health conditions and illnesses) outlines that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can occur if a person has been exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, in the following way(s):

  • Direct exposure
  • Witnessing the trauma
  • Learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma
  • Indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics)

From both a personal and professional level, I can tell you that living with PTSD is debilitating. It can feel like the walls have closed in on you and the entire world becomes scary. Your world becomes smaller and smaller, relationships suffer and often, so does your physical health.  Trauma changes your view of yourself and the world. Often, negative core beliefs about yourself and others solidify and this becomes the lens through which you see the entire world and everyone in it. I know and work with so many adults that do not even have a “pre-trauma” self, such was their childhood. They have been living from a state of fear and survival for their entire lives.

I want to tell you that there is a way out of this living – there really is. Trauma and living with PTSD or C-PTSD is something that can be healed, gently, over time. The paradox is that since trauma happens in relationship, it must be healed in one. Most trauma survivors I know wish they could go and close the door, do some healing alone, and come out rejuvenated. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. A qualified trauma therapist can build with you a foundation upon which your life can be rebuilt. As trauma lives in the body (I suggest reading “The Body Keeps the Score” if this article has resonated with you), a somatic-based therapy could be profoundly healing. This can include somatic experiencing, sensorimotor psychotherapy, EMDR and other types. Your life was not meant to be lived in survival mode, jumping from one crisis to the next.  I hope, so deeply, that you find the courage to heal.

May you be happy.


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