What is Trauma?

Definition(s) of Trauma


There are different definitions of trauma and most of them, especially the one from the DSM series (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders), categorize trauma as something that is only caused by major events or catastrophes in one’s life (i.e., major car accidents, major disasters, violent rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, witnessing violence or death, and the like). This is also what the average person thinks of what causes trauma or to be considered to be traumatized.  For the DSM series the trauma has to end up in some kind of disorder in order to be valid somehow and the average lay person is also conditioned to see trauma as something that only some go through or have to experience. This type of trauma will be referred to here on as Big “T” trauma. There is also something I will refer to as Little “t” trauma which I go into more thoroughly later.


Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of stressful events that shatter ones’ sense of security, making them feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. It doesn’t matter how big the traumatic incident was, if it causes the existing conditions just mentioned, the person experiencing these thoughts and feelings has be traumatized. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but, in reality, any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm or is not the result of a major event or catastrophe. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized. So, one person who gets slapped in the face at a particularly vulnerable point in their life can get traumatized from this incident while someone else with the same experience can get very angry, etc. but not necessarily carry this trauma with them through life. It’s going depend on the individual person’s perception, etc., as to whether that person will be permanently scared by a particular incident.  


Symptoms of Trauma


Following a traumatic event, or repeated trauma, people react in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions.


Emotional and Psychological Symptoms:


  • Shock, denial, or disbelief

  • Anger, irritability, mood swings

  • Guilt, shame, self-blame

  • Feeling sad or hopeless

  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating

  • Anxiety and fear

  • Withdrawing from others

  • Feeling disconnected or numb


Physical symptoms of trauma:


  • Insomnia or nightmares

  • Being startled easily

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Aches and pains

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Edginess and agitation

  • Muscle tension


Since P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is thought of as the result of what most people think of as Trauma, I have listed the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here as well:


PTSD Symptoms


  • Experiencing Symptoms:

    • Witnessing, experiencing, or being confronted with an extraordinary traumatic event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror (or agitation in children) during the event and result in symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal afterward.


  • Re-experiencing Symptoms:

    • Flashbacks

    • Nightmares

    • Intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or sensations


  • Avoidance Symptoms:

    • Avoiding objects, places, or activities that are reminders of the trauma

    • Emotional numbness

    • Guilt, depression, anxiety

    • Reduced interest in previously enjoyable activities

    • Inability to remember parts of the trauma


  • Hyperarousal Symptoms:

    • Being jumpy or easily started

    • Feeling stressed, tense or on edge

    • Sleep problems like trouble falling or staying asleep, or difficulty allowing yourself to sleep due fear of the nightmares.

    • Moodiness or anger outbursts



What is meant by “trauma”?

Webster’s Dictionary defines trauma as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury”. This definition applies to B "T" traumawhich is what most of us think when we think of trauma or of someone being traumatized. We usually think of the bigger forms of trauma that result from a major accident, disaster, or tragedy. These forms of trauma are perceived as life threatening or able to effect one’s life dramatically. Some examples of events causing this type of trauma would be natural disasters, accidents, rape, witnessing violence, physical injury, physical, sexual and/or even more extreme emotional/verbal abuse, etc. These traumas can lead to debilitating symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, phobias, fears, as well as difficulties at home and work, with extreme cases leading to clinically defined disorders such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), or other clinically defined anxiety or depressive disorders. Some examples of negative self-beliefs that develop from these bigger traumas are, “I’m not safe in the world”, “I’m in danger”, “I’m going to die”, etc.

However, the majority of trauma we experience in our lives does not come from these larger, more dramatic events. Most of the trauma we all experience in our lives comes from the Little “t” trauma in our lives, the more personalized traumatic events which are more insidious. These events, usually experienced in our childhood, have negatively altered our sense of self in some way, and influence how we feel about ourselves and how we interact in the world around us. These experiences caused us emotional pain, humiliation, or shame, giving us a lesser sense of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Being chastised or judged unfairly by our caretakers, (no matter how well intentioned they may have been), being humiliated in the classroom, difficulties with peers, chaotic family dynamics, divorce, abandonment issues, etc., are examples of Little “t” traumas. Some examples of self-beliefs that develop from these “t” traumas are “I’m not deserving”, “I’m not lovable”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m not good enough”, "I don't deserve", "I'm a failure", "I'm not worthy", "I am less than", etc. These beliefs then get played out in our lives in that we don't fulfill our potentials and live the happy/healthy life we all deserve.

Everyone experiences trauma or distress of some kind during our childhoods as well as when we are adults. I will use myself as an example. When I was 8 years old, I almost drown in my hometown lake. I was going down for the third time which, even at that age, I was aware that I would die if somebody didn't come in to get me. Obviously, I was eventually pulled out and I was very thankful indeed. However, from that point on, for decades, I never went out swimming over my head, and when I did swim, I would swim very fast in short spirts, convincing myself that I did so because it was the best way to get good exercise.


When I went to the E.M.D.R. training a number of years ago, I processed this traumatic experience of my almost drowning and realized only then that my quick spirts of swimming were caused by my being afraid of sinking (drowning), linking back thirty years to that time when I was 8 years old. Even though this event was thirty years in my past I still not only remembered that traumatic experience but I had acted it out for thirty years without my conscious awareness of what I was really doing. After I processed and released that trauma at the training, I went into the local lake the next day and not only went out over my head while swimming, but I swam all the way out to the dock in a very leisurely manner, and did so amongst some very thick and slimy weeds that had grown to the surface of the water most of the way.

Such is an example of negative thoughts/beliefs causing negative feelings causing negative behaviors (for a big portion of my life until I RELEASED them with E.M.D.R.). This near drowning trauma, and my not being able to enjoy swimming for decades, was the result of a rather simple/single trauma (not discounting it's large and longterm effect of me). After I processed this trauma, in one session, I released the negative thoughts (fear/anxiety), the negative beliefs (that "I'm not safe in the water" and "I'm going to die"), and the negative behaviors (not allowing myself to enjoy swimming). Immediately after processing with E.M.D.R. (Eye Movement Desensitiazation & Reprocessing) this trauma I was able to swim normally.

Another single event trauma that I was able to process/release at this E.M.D.R. training was the event (or repetition of the same event) that caused my claustrophobia, which I felt was rather severe for me at times. To give you some background on my claustrophobia, I took the E.M.D.R. course at an old camp grounds setting and opted to camp out in a tent during my week of the training. The first night I was there I opened up the front flaps of my tent to get to look at the stars as I fell asleep. During the night I woke up because the dew from the night air that was falling on me was getting me pretty wet. Rather annoyed by the wetness, I overcompensated somewhat and closed the flaps tight. Very soon I woke up with this incredible panicky feeling, feeling very closed in and thinking I had no air to breath. I unzipped the tent flaps as fast as I could to get some air to breath. If I had a knife I would have cut myself out of the tent to relief myself of this panic.

Then, the very next morning, I went to take a shower in the showers provided by the training facilities. Again, they were showers that the campers used to use when it was a camp grounds so they were smaller than the shower I was used to at home. When I got in the shower, it seemed to be particularly close and, with the shower running, I only had one small space off to my left side to breath air without getting my mouth and nose full of water causing me to panic. At one point I felt like I was in a coffin with little air left to breath. I cut the shower short, got dressed and later talked about these two incidents in class when the instructor asked for volunteers that had a phobia they wanted to work on. My instructor said I easily qualified and I became the demonstration for the others in this training.

While processing this trauma, I focused on my feelings of claustrophobia while thinking of these two incidents when I particularly felt claustrophobic. The process took me back to a childhood trauma. When I was about 9 y.o. I was hospitalized for a severe case of kidney disease (so severe they told my mother that I could die) and had to spend considerable time in the hospital to have it treated. The treatment consisted of three daily needle shots into my butt over a period of a number of weeks. It became quickly apparent to me that the more I got the shots, the more they seemed to hurt, especially because they were running out of fresh spots on my butt to give me the needles. So, when I saw the nurse coming to my bed with a another needle for me to take, I began to get quickly agitated and refused, at first, to take any more needles. This behavior was, as you could imagine, very short-lived because it quickly became routine for the nurse to bring 4 other hospital workers with her, to hold me down at each appendage until she gave me the shot. This procedure happened repeatedly three times a day times the four or five weeks that I was in the hospital.



Will Get You There!

Brainspotting Specialist


Dave Dodge, L.C.S.W., C.B.S.P.


Skype Sessions are available


  (914) 391-4350       Mt. Kisco, N.Y.     dave@acceleratedhealingsolutions.com 

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