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Trauma Definition

Part One: Defining Trauma

What do we mean by Trauma? The Three E's1

Nationally recognized professional associations, family and consumer/peer specialist groups, research and practice entities, and diagnostic and medical groups have endorsed differing definitions of trauma. After extensive review and discussion of these various definitions, the following working definition of individual trauma was developed:

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

Events and circumstances may include the actual or extreme threat of physical or psychological harm or the withholding of material or relational resources essential to healthy development. These events and circumstances may occur as a single occurrence or repeatedly over time.

The individual's experience of these events or circumstances helps to determine whether it is a traumatic event. A particular event may be experienced as traumatic for one individual and not for another (e.g., one child removed from an abusive home may experience this as traumatic, whereas another may not; one refugee may experience fleeing one's country as traumatic, another may not; one military veteran may experience deployment to a war zone as traumatic, another may simply take this in stride). How the individual labels, assigns meaning to, and is disrupted physically and psychologically by an event will determine whether or not it is experienced as traumatic. In many situations, a sense of humiliation, betrayal, or silencing often shapes the experience of the event. How the event is experienced may be linked to a range of factors including the individual's cultural beliefs (e.g., the subjugation of women and the experience of domestic violence), availability of social supports (e.g., whether isolated or embedded in a supportive family or community structure), or to the developmental stage of the individual (i.e., an individual may understand and experience events differently at age five, fifteen, or fifty)2.

The long-lasting adverse effects on an individual are the result of the individual's experience of the event or circumstance. These adverse effects may occur immediately or over time. In some situations, the individual may not recognize the connection between the effects and the events. Examples of adverse effects include an individual's inability to cope with the normal stresses and strains of daily living; to trust and benefit from relationships; and to manage emotions, memory, attention, thinking, and behavior. In addition to these more visible effects, there may be an altering of one's neuro-physiological make-up and ongoing health and well-being. Advances in neuroscience and an increased understanding of the interaction of neurobiological and environmental factors have documented the effects of such threatening events.3 Traumatic experiences may lead to a hypervigilant, constant state of arousal which eventually wears a person down, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Survivors of trauma have also highlighted the impact of these events on spiritual beliefs and the search for meaning.

In short, trauma is the sum of the event, the experience, and the effect.

How do we understand trauma in the context of community?

Trauma does not occur in a vacuum. Individual trauma occurs in a context of community, whether the community is defined geographically as in neighborhoods; virtually as in a shared identity, ethnicity, or experience; or organizationally, as in a place of work, learning, or worship. How a community responds to individual trauma sets the foundation for the impact of the traumatic event, experience, and effect. Communities that provide a context of understanding and support self-determination may facilitate the healing and recovery process for the individual. Alternatively, communities that avoid, overlook, or misunderstand the impact of trauma may often be re-traumatizing and interfere with the healing process (e.g., a sexually abused individual subjected to restraints and seclusion in a treatment facility; a maltreated child forcibly removed from the home with little comfort from an adult; a victim of domestic violence harshly interrogated in a shelter). Individuals can be re-traumatized by the very people whose intent is to be helpful. This is one way to understand trauma in the context of a community.

A second and equally important perspective on trauma and communities is the understanding that communities as a whole can also experience trauma. Just as with the trauma of an individual or family, a community may be subjected to a community-threatening event, have a shared experience of the event, and have an adverse, prolonged effect. Whether the result of a natural disaster (e.g., a flood, a hurricane or an earthquake) or an event or circumstances inflicted by one group on another (e.g., usurping homelands, forced relocation, servitude, or mass incarceration), the resulting trauma is often transmitted from one generation to the next in a pattern often referred to as historical, community, or intergenerational trauma.

Communities can collectively react to trauma in ways that are very similar to the ways in which individuals respond. They can become hyper-vigilant, fearful, or they can be re-traumatized, triggered by circumstances resembling earlier trauma, whether recognized or unrecognized. Trauma can be built into cultural norms and passed from generation to generation. Communities are often profoundly shaped by their trauma histories. Making sense of the trauma experience and telling the story of what happened using the language and framework of the community is an important step toward healing community trauma.

Delving into the work on community trauma is beyond the scope of this document and will be done in the next phase of this work. However, recognizing that many individuals cope with their trauma in the safe or not-so safe space of their communities, it is important to know how communities can support or impede the healing process. Many people who experience trauma readily overcome it and continue on with their lives; some become stronger and more resilient; for others, the trauma is overwhelming and their lives get derailed. Some may get help in formal support systems; however, the vast majority will not. The manner in which individuals and families can mobilize the resources and support of their communities and the degree to which the community has the capacity, knowledge, and skills to understand and respond to the adverse effects of trauma has significant implications for the well-being of the people in their community.

Tell us your views on the working definition of trauma.

  1. Adapted from Griffin,E., (2012). Presentation at the NIDA/ACYF experts meeting on trauma and child maltreatment.
  2. Wilson, C. and Ford, J., (2012). SAMHSA's Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care Experts Meeting
  3. Andersen, R., (2012). SAMHSA's Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care Experts Meeting.


Last updated: 12/10/2012