Understanding Trauma


By Ali Mariani

I recently attended a job training and one of the first things our instructor said was: “Guess what percentage of people experience trauma.” I thought about all the different types of trauma that occur: sexual trauma, natural disasters, domestic violence, grief/loss, witnessing someone die, addiction, suicide, violence, etc. I formulated that 60% was a pretty good guess. I raised my hand and proudly exclaimed “60%”. The instructor shook her head “No,” and afterwards, several other people guessed percentages that were higher.


Finally, after everyone had guessed incorrectly, she plainly muttered, “100%.”


A blanket of silence fell over the participants sitting at the table. I was astonished and confused. The word “trauma” had always sounded so serious and so rare to me. She followed up her percentage by stating: “Trauma is subjective. Whatever someone experiences as a traumatic and difficult event, is trauma.”


What she was saying was: There is no single definition for trauma. We all experience life differently; we all have a different set of coping skills, and a different genetic make-up. What one person experiences as traumatic, another person may not.


Her example was this: Say you are leaving a work meeting, and you let out noticeable gas on your way out of the meeting. People clearly heard and knew it was you. I know this may seem trite to some of you, but the reality is that this could be traumatic for someone. Depending upon their individual experience and background, farting in front of their colleagues and superiors could be traumatizing. Going forward, they may experience severe anxiety every time they have to attend a work meeting.


To another person, this might be nothing. This might be something that they joke about with their colleagues later that day. Or maybe they even laughed about it right afterwards. They may pay little attention to the event and rarely, if ever, think about it.


What is really key to understand is this: neither one of these individuals is right or wrong about their reaction to trauma.


They are both reacting to a situation in the very best way that they know how. I used a less severe example here, but it can apply to other situations too. Another example is losing a loved one. Death and loss is a natural part of the circle of life, yet can also be traumatic for some people.


Say you lose your best friend to the disease of addiction. You are quite sad and shook up by this. Maybe you didn’t see it coming, or you had no idea what was going on with your friend. Finding out that your friend had died may have been traumatic for you. You may feel really sad and find it difficult to carry on your daily responsibilities.


Another friend that you have has lost several friends to the disease of addiction. He has been around long enough, and had it happen long enough, to the point where he is no longer shocked when it happens. He is saddened by loss, but doesn’t react in the same way that you do. He is able to carry on his life and responsibilities no problem.


Again, neither of these reactions is right or wrong. They are just different.

If you are experiencing trauma, there is help. You don’t have to do it alone. Here are some resources:

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