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What do we mean by "Trauma?"

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

The word "trauma," can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There are varying clinical definitions and generalized uses in common vernacular. I'll do my best today to break down some of these differences and why it's important.

The DSM-5 Definition: Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence, either through direct experience, witnessing it, learning about it happening to a close family member or friend, or repeated exposure to details of traumatic events.


Complex Trauma: While not acknowledged in the DSM-5, Complex Trauma and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) are well known in the clinical community and cited in the ICD-11. Complex trauma refers to prolonged and repetitive exposure to traumatic events, often beginning in childhood. Unlike single-event trauma, which may result from a discrete incident, complex trauma involves chronic experiences of abuse, neglect, or violence, often within the context of interpersonal relationships. This form of tra


uma can occur within families, institutions, or other settings where individuals are vulnerable and reliant on others for care and protection. C-PTSD has special considerations and tends to have more impact on one's emotional regulation, interpersonal relationships, and ones sense of self.


Racial Trauma: “The cumulative traumatizing impact of racism on a racialized individual, which can include individual acts of racial discrimination combined with systemic racism, and typically includes historical, cultural, and community trauma as well.” (Williams et al., 2021).


Identity-based Trauma or Minority Stress: Individuals from marginalized communities may experience unique forms of trauma and distress as a result of societal discrimination, prejudice, and systemic oppression based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, nationality, ability or other aspects of their marginalized identity. This trauma may include interpersonal discrimination, societal prejudice, legal and institutional barriers, and cultural norms that devalue or invalidate their id


entities. It can also include hate crimes, physical and verbal abuse, rejection from family or social networks, bullying, and microaggressions. These experiences can have a profound impact on an individual's well-being, self-esteem, and sense of safety.


Little "t" trauma: While this is not the best name due it's minimizing tone, this term commonly refers to painful, life shattering events, that can turn one's world upside down, but don't meet the criteria listed above. This may include things like a painful break up or divorce, loss of a loved one, losing ones job, or experiencing (non-violent) bullying. Even though these events may not meet everyone's definition of trauma, they can certainly have a deep impact on one's mental health and cause long term symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief, etc. Those who endure these painful events deserve space and support to process, grieve, and move forward.


There are other definitions of trauma floating


around and many other painful and/or impactful events that may fall into some gray areas with these definitions. What trauma does not mean, is anything slightly uncomfortable or annoying. "Trauma" does get overused in common vernacular in a way that can be minimizing and invalidating to those with true trauma. While Up Down tries to be inclusive and open with its definition, this distinction is important as the trivialization of the word can cause harm to those experiencing true mental health symptoms. If you have experienced any of the examples above, anything adjacent to these definitions, or anything so extremely painful in your life that you find yourself reliving the past and unable to let go, we can help. We specialize in treating trauma of all variations and can tailor your treatment to your specific situation and needs.



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