Thriving in the Face of Trauma

A Psychology Professor investigates what really happens when we are faced with undesirable and unthinkable events.

What is trauma and why do we so frequently misunderstand it?

Events are not traumatic

This blog is about traumatic life events: what we know, what we don't know and why we so often misunderstand them. With each entry I will endeavor to take on a different issue or question, a small piece of the puzzle.

Let's begin with a simple but crucial point: events are not traumatic. At first this statement may seem to make little sense. Didn't I just refer to traumatic life events in the paragraph above? Yes, but I did so only because the phrase is a cultural reference point. It's a mistake most of us make all the time. It's habitual, like saying the sun comes up in the morning. In fact, the sun is stationary and the earth turns to face the sun. But the distinction is not merely semantic. The unavoidable truth is that events are not traumatic, they are only potentially traumatic. This is because trauma is a subjective phenomenon. An event can be experienced as traumatic but the event itself is not traumatic. More importantly, and this is actually the crux of most of my research, not everyone experiences the same event the same way. Trauma for one person is not trauma for another. And no event is traumatic for everyone, not by a long shot.

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This is true for even the most aversive events: natural disasters, assaults, severe injuries. I am not saying that these events are not disturbing or horribly unpleasant; not at all. Most of us when we are confronted with potentially traumatic events (or PTEs for short) experience acute distress and fear. These events can leave us shaken, and stunned. But for most of us, these reactions are only transient. The reaction may last a few minutes or a few hours, sometimes a few days, but we eventually return to our normal selves. This is not true for everyone of course. Some people are devastated, and for these people, PTEs do become genuine traumas.

But again, that is the point. Trauma for one person is not trauma for another. It is a simple but unavoidable fact, and if we are ever going to understand trauma or potential trauma, this is the first distinction that we will have to come to terms with.

George A. Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Can Tell Us about Life after Loss.

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