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Adena Bank Lees, LCSW
Adena Bank Lees, LCSW

What Is Traumatic Stress Anyway?

Defining trauma, traumatic stress, and key elements of healing.

In order to ultimately heal from trauma, we first have to understand exactly what it is. Let’s start with a few words from the experts.

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress defines traumatic stress as: “The emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physiological experience of individuals who are exposed to, or who witness, events that overwhelm their coping and problem-solving abilities."

Judith Herman, MD, in her seminal book Trauma and Recovery, described psychological trauma as “…an affiliation of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”

According to Bessel van der Kolk, MD, one of the leading researchers in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then," he adds. "It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” This can be translated to trauma living inside our bodies and experiencing it as if it is happening right now.

So, the terms trauma and traumatic stress are not just used for war veterans, natural disaster victims, and physical and sexual abuse victims any longer. You can experience overwhelm, powerlessness, lack of connection, and meaning as a result of situations such as chronic mental or physical illness, growing up in an alcoholic or addicted home, witnessing domestic violence, experiencing consistent shame or emotional neglect from your parents, or losing a significant person in your life.

What we also know is that the earlier in development these traumatically stressful events
occur and the longer they persist, the greater the negative impact they have on your ability to experience calmness and safety inside yourself, have meaningful relationships, and sustain optimal functioning.

In my almost 30 years of being a psychotherapist, I have witnessed stories told by mouth and relived through the body. I have also listened to clients describe stories of what might appear as more subtle, yet they are suffering and showing symptoms akin to those who have experienced more classic forms of trauma. Current research validates this phenomenon.

What do you do if you are struggling or suffering from any form of trauma or traumatic stress?
Practice the key elements of healing:

  • Become aware and validate. What you have experienced or are experiencing is real and hurtful. Having the name or context of traumatic stress lets you know you are not crazy, that it is not your fault, and there is nothing “wrong” with you. It is actually a normal response to an abnormal experience.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply. This is a free and portable tool to use anytime and anywhere. Make sure you inhale through your nose and exhale for longer than you inhale (either through your nose or through pursed lips. A suggested rhythm is to inhale for four counts, hold for two and exhale for six to eight counts). By doing this you are activating the part of your nervous system that helps your body calm itself. You can then think clearly and be in the present moment.
  • Ask for help and get support. This can be from trusted friends, a spouse, and/or support groups. If your emotions or coping mechanisms are getting in the way of your regular routine, or your family and friends are noting concerns, please seek help from a mental health professional.
  • Laugh and have fun! Laughter releases stress reducing hormones that boost your immune system and rewire your brain. Make sure you are doing things that you enjoy, either with yourself, or with people you enjoy.


American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress

Herman, J. (1992) Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, New York: Basic Books. pg. 33.

Psychotherapy Networker interview with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk January 11, 2017

About the Author
Adena Bank Lees, LCSW

Adena Bank Lees, LCSW, is a counselor, speaker, author, and consultant, providing fresh perspective on traumatic stress, addiction treatment and recovery.

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