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.

What are the effects of trauma? 


SAMSHA tells us that exposure to a traumatic event, or repeated exposure to a series of traumatic events, can have “lasting adverse effects.” That sense of feeling overwhelmed when experiencing a traumatic event may stay with a person for weeks, months, or years. Sometimes a person can feel so overwhelmed that it interferes with their daily routines, work, school, or relationships. It can affect their mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.


Children are especially vulnerable to trauma because their brains and bodies are still developing when they experience the trauma. The chronic stress that comes with exposure to repeated traumatic incidents can release chemicals in the brain that interfere with its growth and development. In the short term, this exposure can make it difficult for a child to concentrate at school. They may have trouble regulating their emotions, display aggressive behaviors, withdraw from friends and family, engage in risky behaviors, or become sad and depressed.


Research has shown that trauma can have long lasting effects on a person’s overall health. People who do not receive treatment for the effects of trauma have higher rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and addictions to tobacco, alcohol, and other substances. They are also at greater risk for depression, chronic anxiety, and suicide.

What are some examples of trauma? 


Just about anything that causes a person to have this “fight, flight, or freeze” response can be considered traumatic. Some common triggers include: violent incidents, including intimate partner and community violence; physical abuse; natural disasters; war; medical trauma; sudden death of a loved one; terrorism.


Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma, especially when they do not feel safe or loved or have been exposed to “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). Some ACEs include: physical or sexual abuse, the loss of a parent, living with a parent with a mental health or substance use disorder, or exposure to violence between parents.


A host of social inequities and conditions can also create fertile environments for trauma. These include racism, poverty, and xenophobia. People living in poverty, for example, can experience daily circumstances that threaten their sense of well-being, among them hunger and inadequate shelter. Immigrant communities face fears of deportation. The systematic racism, segregation and terrorism inflicted on Black Americans for more than 400 years has created a phenomenon that Dr. Joy DeGruy refers to as “post-traumatic slave syndrome.”

How does trauma affect Wyandotte County?


In 2014, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment published a study of the impact trauma has on every county in the state. Called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), this study found that:


  • 64% of Wyandotte County adults have experienced at least one ACE in their lifetimes, compared to 55% for all Kansas adults
  • 30% grew up with substance abuse in their households (25% for all Kansans)
  • 21% experienced violence between adults (15%  for all Kansans)
  • 19% were victims of physical abuse (15% for all Kansans)


In addition, the BRFSS study found that traumatic conditions like these have resulted in a disproportionate number of Wyandotte County residents at risk of depression, substance abuse, debilitating arthritis, and other chronic diseases. It concluded: Preventing ACE may have beneficial effects on the long-term health of Wyandotte County residents.”


Poverty and Trauma


Recent research demonstrates that poverty creates a number of circumstances that put people at risk of trauma. Children are especially vulnerable. In 2010, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network published a review of research that demonstrates a strong connection between poverty and trauma. Children living in poverty, it says, are exposed to more situations that threaten their safety and sense of well-being than children who grow up in more affluent households. “In addition to normal childhood stresses,” the paper says, “children in these circumstances are often exposed to violent crime in their neighborhood or school; gang and drug activity; house fires; victimization, incarceration, or death of a family member; family violence; and maltreatment.”


Many children who are exposed to these circumstances are more likely to find themselves in a heightened state of vigilance that can cause anxiety, irritability or aggression. They may also show an increased need for affection, support and reassurance. Left untreated, these reactions to trauma can interfere with a child’s daily routines, schoolwork, and ability to establish healthy relationships. In the long-run, they are more likely to experience chronic physical and mental health challenges such as depression, substance use disorders, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.