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Defining Trauma

How we create disturbance, and how this impacts what we call "trauma."

Key points

  • Trauma can be an event or an emotion.
  • Emotions come from our thinking, not from situations.
  • A written three minute exercise can help you change your thinking and emotions.
Geralt/ Pixabay
Source: Geralt/ Pixabay

What is trauma? The devil's in the details.

Trauma can refer to an event, for example, a physical injury like a concussion when you tripped and hit your head. Or, it can refer to an emotion, for example, feeling traumatized when a supervisor yells at you.

In the first case, the fall caused your physical trauma. In the second, it is not as clear cut. It could be argued that your thinking in fact indirectly contributed to your emotional trauma. This is because emotions come from your thinking about situations, not from the situations themselves.

Let's unpack this idea: Your boss yelling at you constitutes the triggering situation. But you may have disturbed yourself and made yourself feel traumatized due to your thinking about this unfortunate situation. In fact whenever you have an emotion, whether it's related to trauma or to a more benign situation, such as disappointment about the weather, your feeling about the event is generated by your thinking. In this case it might be, "I was planning on having a picnic, so I'm sad that it's raining now."

This is a particular kind of thinking that causes emotional disturbance, even sometimes emotional disturbance that we label trauma. This is thinking in terms of demands, musts, shoulds, supposed to's, and dire necessities. The three major demands are: a) I must or need to do well and get approval or else I'm no good; b) Others must or need to treat me well or else they're no good; and c) I need my life to be fair, easy, and hassle-free or else it's no good.

Practicing a written Three Minute Exercise (TME) can help you change your view, which can result in a change in emotions.

For example:

A: (Activating event) My supervisor yelled at me.

B: (Irrational belief) I absolutely need my supervisor's approval.

C: (Undesirable emotional consequence) Extremely distressed, traumatized.

D: (Disputing or questioning your irrational belief) What is the evidence that I need my supervisor's approval?

E: (Effective new thinking or answer to the question) Although I strongly prefer to have my supervisor's approval, there is no evidence, data, or logic to prove it's an absolute necessity. Her yelling at me is too bad, but hardly the end of my world. I've survived her criticism in the past and I'll survive it this time. My supervisor's attitude is a great hassle but not a horror. I do not like this state of affairs, but I can stand what I don't like. It's not my boss yelling at me or criticizing me that causes my distress, anguish, and suffering, but rather it's my irrational, needy thinking about it that's the culprit, and with much practice I can change my thinking. I can learn to unconditionally accept myself as the imperfect human I am with this person's criticism, although I'll never like her criticizing me.

F: (New feeling that resulted from E) Greatly disappointed and displeased, not traumatized or hurt.

Writing a TME one time only is not the key to changing your thinking. It's not a silver bullet or one-trial learning. Rather, it involves writing it out and thinking it through again and again and again. The ultimate goal involves changing your entire perspective on yourself, others, and the conditions of your life. This involves viewing your small and large, short-term and long-term goals as preferences, rather than as demands.

More from Michael R Edelstein Ph.D.
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