Defining Trauma


It seems people talk about ‘Trauma’ or being ‘traumatised’ in such a ‘carefree’ manner these days. I have even seen various articles referring to Trauma with a capital T and ‘trauma’ with a little ‘t’ though it can be a bit ambiguous as to who decides whether your trauma merits a capital ‘T’. When a term or word that previously held such weight becomes common usage it can affect an individual in a number of ways. They might feel further isolated because their experience of trauma does not match up to the ‘mainstream’ view/usage of the phrase or, conversely, it could help to take some of the power and impact out of the word itself – which in itself is no bad thing.

Trauma is nuanced but if you are wondering how to define Trauma, either for yourself or for someone else, hopefully, this article will help provide some parameters. Perhaps you might want to consider your own view on ‘trauma’. It can be quite telling to see where you’ve set the bar on your own experiences.

I remember reading on a website once, ‘PTSD is a disorder characterised by failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.’ I read that phrase over and over again – ‘failure to recover’. I had a real issue with this wording because it somehow implied that ‘you’ were the failure because you couldn’t ‘get over’ being abused for 15 years or you couldn’t quite get over having your whole family wiped out in a cruel twist of fate.

Suffice to say – I have a different point of view on CPTSD/PTSD.

CPTSD/PTSD is not a ‘disorder’ as such – the symptoms are a set of ‘coping mechanisms to ensure your survival’. You have CPTSD/PTSD because you ADAPTED to SURVIVE. You are not broken. You are not a failure! Far from it.

OK, now we have that straight, let’s delve into the differences between CPTSD and PTSD. Please note this is not intended for use to provide a diagnosis but if this ‘fits’ for you, then it’s something to consider talking to your doctor about.

Post Traumatic Stress – PTSD

Generally a short-term trauma or one-off event

This may be a single, terrifying incident such as an accident in the car or at work. Perhaps you witnessed a terrifying event. The body is suddenly overwhelmed/over-stimulated – and this results in an over-sensitised system. Imagine your body has become ‘sensitive’, ‘allergic’ or perhaps even ‘vigilant’ against anything that is reminiscent of the trauma such as a loud noise or sudden fast movement.

The psychological and physical after-effects of a one-time trauma (if they persist for at least one month) are diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is defined by a set of symptoms including:

  • Exaggerated/heightened startle response
  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia/Nightmares
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty eating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Persistent avoidance of anything that reminds you of the event itself
  • Anxiety
  • Low or depressed mood
  • Agitation
  • Irritability/sudden anger
  • Self-destructive behaviour
  • Social isolation/loneliness
  • Unwanted thoughts
  • Guilt

Complex Post Traumatic Stress – CPTSD

Characterised by long-term – continuous events/relentless/throughout childhood

This is when a terrifying ordeal happens over and over again – possibly every night/day for years. This could be abuse happening within the home such as sexual, physical or emotional, or community violence such as children living in a literal war zone. The defining aspect of CPTSD is this is ‘typically’ abuse/trauma in childhood. In these scenarios, a child has no power and they are trapped/held hostage in an environment where they should be feeling safe and protected.

CPTSD is not actually a separate diagnosis from PTSD, but most experts recognise the differences because of how the symptoms present. The brain of a child is still developing which adds that deeper level of ingrained behaviour and complexity. You can expect to see all the ‘usual’ symptoms of PTSD (listed above) plus a few additional symptoms that make everyday life and relationships problematic:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions:
    • extreme anger
    • depression
    • suicidal thoughts
    • quick mood swings from one extreme to another
  • Losing memories (generally) or of the trauma/not remembering the order of events.
  • Reliving the trauma each time something reminds you.
  • Dissociation, feeling detached from yourself – (It can feel like an out-of-body experience). It is too painful to be yourself – to be in touch with your emotions.
  • Changes in self-perception, including feeling totally different from other people in your life.
  • Feelings of shame or guilt (’embarrassment’ over the trauma is another way we experience ‘shame’).
  • Challenges in relationships, including difficulty trusting others, seeking out a rescuer, or even seeking out (subconsciously) an abuser.
  • Distorted perceptions of the perpetrator or abuser, which may include ascribing all the power to this person, becoming obsessed with him or her, or becoming preoccupied with revenge.
  • Loss of a system of ‘meaning’ in life, such as losing your core beliefs, values, religious faith, or hope either in the world and/ or people generally.

If you recognise a pattern or can relate to these symptoms – and you know you have experienced a terrifying ordeal or you have suffered years of abuse in the home (even if it was not directed at you personally), then you may benefit from speaking with your doctor in the first instance or a Trauma Counselor. You may have tucked that experience away in the deep depths of your mind and ‘just got on with things’ but aspects of your behaviour and personality could actually be an indicator that you are still in survival mode. Even just having an awareness you may be suffering from CPTSD/PTSD is a HUGE step forward. You may want to sit with this realisation for a while – you’ll probably tell yourself, you’ve managed things yourself up until now – and you probably have. But PTSD is exhausting and can influence your life in ways you never realised! Just imagine not having to carry that ‘stuff’ in your head – and your body – how liberating would that feel?

The remarkable thing is – you can heal the symptoms of PTSD. Our brains are incredible. However, recovery from PTSD and trauma is not something you should attempt on your own. Taking responsibility for your own healing does not mean you have to do it all yourself – but you are the one who needs to initiate things when you are ready. In the meantime, you can begin to educate yourself on PTSD and its effects. Perhaps you’ll see patterns in your own life. You need a ‘Team’ or at the very least a specialist in your corner – and you need a ‘toolbox’ of practices to support your healing. Expressive writing has an invaluable role to play in that toolbox since it has been proven to have a positive effect on the brain. Look out for our upcoming article – Re-wire your brain with expressive writing’ which explains the relationship between writing and neuroplasticity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *