What is Trauma?
By Melissa Fickling, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Many psychological terms have become commonly used – and misused – in mainstream dialogue. Trauma is one of those words that is often used inaccurately and insensitively. This overuse can contribute to a misunderstanding of how trauma really affects the everyday lives of many people. Some examples of traumatic events include rape, assault, and natural disaster, but there are many more ways people can experience trauma.
Traumatic events can happen directly to an individual (in the case of rape or assault, for example), but a person can also be traumatized by witnessing, learning about, or being repeatedly exposed to details about another person’s trauma. One way to think of trauma comes from the American Psychiatric Association and it says that trauma includes “…exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). There are a range of experiences which can be classified as traumatic. An individual’s subjective experience is important to keep in mind when considering her or his level of traumatization.
At some point after a traumatic experience, a person may begin reliving or re-experiencing the trauma, as well as a number of other symptoms. These can include avoiding memories or reminders of the trauma, experiencing an increase in negative emotions, having intrusive memories of the event in the form of dreams or memories, and experiencing physiological symptoms such as hypervigilance, heightened startle response, poor concentration, and difficulty sleeping.
Feminist therapist Laura Brown offers a view of trauma in which posttraumatic symptoms are more adaptive than pathological because they represent a need not to be silenced. These symptoms communicate the severity and gravity of the everyday traumas that people experience, particularly those that may happen in private such as intimate partner violence. They can be thought of as a best attempt at managing the intense feelings which arise from the trauma. Feminist counselors consider the social context in which trauma occurs and weave this awareness into their work with clients.
Talking with a professional counselor about any distress that is impacting your life and well-being as a result of trauma can an effective way to manage any unwanted symptoms. Recovering from trauma takes time and it is especially important to care for yourself while engaging in counseling around these experiences. Although talking about the traumatic event(s) can be hard, doing so helps in coping with the difficult emotions and moving forward in living a full life with rewarding and healthy relationships.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.dsm5.org/Pages/Default.aspx.
Brown, L. S. (1994). Subversive dialogues: Theory in feminist therapy. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Brown, L.S. (1995). Not outside the range: One feminist perspective on psychic trauma, II. In. C. Caruth (Ed.) Trauma: Explorations in memory, (pp. 100-112). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Melissa J. Fickling, MA, LPC, NCC is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Counseling & Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the instructor for CED 574A: Women’s Issues in Counseling for the 2014-2015 academic year. Melissa has worked as a counselor in college, community, and private practice settings where she specializes in issues related to work, career, and transition. Melissa completed her doctoral cognate in Women’s and Gender Studies at UNCG. She is on track to graduate with her Ph.D. in May of 2015. Her dissertation is examining career counselors’ perceptions of social justice advocacy behaviors.
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