What is trauma?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as resulting from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening.”
That seemingly simple definition has a lot packed into it, so let’s spend a little time unpacking it. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that trauma is something a person experiences as harmful or life-threatening. The experience of trauma, in other words, is subjective and depends on how a person responds to the event or events they’re exposed to.
One immediate response to a traumatic event is to go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Imagine you’re on a hike and you encounter a bear on your trail. Your adrenalin rushes through your body. Your heart pounds faster. In that moment you may not think through what to do. You may fight back, lash out in fear. Maybe you run away. Or you might stand in place, paralyzed by what you’re up against and not knowing what to do next. The larger point to take away from this is that a traumatic event or series of events have the capacity to overwhelm a person and make them feel out of control and vulnerable.