- There has been a clear increase in the use of the words trauma and triggered in recent years.
- A word that was once reserved for people with PTSD, typically veterans, is now much more broadly used.
- Trauma is not a new part of our culture but its relevance to all is now better understood.
"Gosh, stop it with the trauma stuff already! Why is everything about trauma?" A reader posted in response to one of my last articles on trauma responses, igniting a firestorm of social-media backlash disguised as debate. "This is what's wrong with the world, everyone is triggered!" the commenter continued.
The commenter was not wrong; the word trauma is certainly one of the words of the decade.
Ten years ago, a therapist saying their specialty was "trauma" was considered a niche. When I first opened my private practice, clients looking for trauma therapy were usually survivors of assault, abuse, or a life-threatening event.
Today, not only is it expected that all therapists are trauma-informed, at a minimum, but there are many different sub-specialties of trauma. And most of my clients, if not all, identify as survivors of some form of trauma.
A word that once rarely uttered outside of clinical discussions, "trauma" is now freely deployed by armchair psychologists all over social media. With so many throwing out words such as "trauma," and its cousin, "triggered," many argue that the true meaning of the word has been watered down, to the detriment of those who've truly experienced trauma. In a 2022 New York Times opinion piece, Jessica Bennett wrote, "There are plenty of horrible things going on in the world, and serious mental health crises that warrant such severe language. But when did we start using the language of harm to describe, well, everything?" (Bennett, 2022)
It could be that lay people are trying to lend legitimacy to their words by using clinical terms to sounds more impactful. Those who have experienced true life-altering trauma are able to recognize the exaggerations easily. Much like survivors of true psychological abuse will never misuse words like "narcissist" or "gaslighting" to refer to someone who simply disagrees with them, an individual who has survived life-altering trauma understands that accidentally burning toast did not traumatize them. However, the overuse of the word also does not change the experience of so many who have experienced trauma and are working to acknowledge it.
But it could be argued that the reaction to even the most "minimal" of traumas—the burnt toast, for example—are all related to our trauma impacts. In the March/April 2023 issue of Psychotherapy Networker, Gabor Maté wrote, "Whether we realize it or not, it’s our woundedness, or how we cope with it, that dictates much of our behavior, shapes our social habits, and informs our way of thinking about the world." (Maté 2023)
As very few, if any, of us have survived this far without any negative experiences, this could mean that, not surprisingly, we all have trauma. "In fact, someone without the marks of trauma would be an outlier in our society," Maté stated. Many of us are walking around with unhealed wounds from childhood and other experiences. We act—and react—to others based on our personal experiences. And if any of our experiences were negative or traumatic, we carry them with us.
Perhaps a better word for trauma could be life experiences, which exist along a spectrum from positive to negative. In mental health, we refer to traumatic events as "Big T" or "little T" traumas—Big T referring to large, single events such as a major accident or surviving a mass shooting, and little-T traumas being things that are, in isolation, less likely to cause psychological harm, but when grouped together can equal (or even surpass) one single, Big-T trauma. Many therapists see clients who appear to suffer more after surviving years of emotional abuse in childhood than those who experienced a single traumatic event that might seem to an outside observer to be much more traumatic.
It's difficult to quantify something as subjective as trauma. What was traumatic to one person might not have been to another. Trauma is so much more than what happens to us; it depends on the tools and support we have (or don't have) to cope and navigate the experience. This is why we know that victims of traumatic events suffer fewer symptoms, and for a shorter period, if they get the help they need sooner.
Trauma is a huge part of our society, and this is not a new thing; it's just that it's only recently been better understood. Decades ago, someone admitting to trauma might have been stigmatized, but today they are more likely to be met with acceptance.
There is no shame in seeking support. If you are currently working through trauma and are looking for a trauma-informed therapist, check the Psychology Today Therapy Directory to find a therapist near you.
Maté, G. 2023. Invisible Legacies: The Ubiquity of Trauma. March/April edition of Psychotherapy Networker.
Bennett, J. 2022. If Everything Is ‘Trauma,’ Is Anything? New York Times Opinion. Accessed 6/3/2023 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/opinion/caleb-love-bombing-gaslighti…