What is Trauma?

By Candice Chiu, M.Ed Counselling and Psychotherapy, RP {Qualifying}  |  November 29th

What pops into your mind when you hear the word trauma?

Perhaps you see a violent battlefield during wartime. Or you may be visualizing a major plane crash. Maybe it’s a weapon being pointed directly at you.

If you saw one of the above or anything similar, you’re not alone. Most people think of trauma as a life-threatening experience. These dangerous situations can definitely be traumatic for many. However, if you ask most mental health professionals, they will define trauma differently. Dr. Gabor Maté, a leading specialist in the field of trauma and addiction, says that trauma is, “not what happened to you; it is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you”. In other words, trauma is not a situation, but an internal experience.

Trauma expert and psychiatrist, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, describes this internal experience as one of intense emotional overwhelm where an individual feels like they have no control over what is happening to them. Some of the physical sensations a person may feel when they are being traumatized can include, but are not limited to, a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, and tense muscles. The mental aspects of being traumatized can include an overwhelming feeling of terror, feeling like you’re completely disconnected from your body, your mind going completely blank, or having racing thoughts.

What Causes Trauma?

Because trauma is an internal experience, even if two people are in the exact same situation, one may be traumatized and the other may not.

What causes some people to be traumatized and others not?

The answer is not simple and depends on many factors. One major factor is the level of emotional support someone has. The more support someone has during and after an overwhelming event, the less likely they are to be traumatized by that experience.

Another major factor is a person’s prior experiences with trauma. If a person has been traumatized in the past, we know they have an increased chance of being retraumatized in the future compared to folks who have never experienced trauma in the first place. Some other factors that can affect one’s chances of being traumatized are genetics, socioeconomic status, and resilience.

What is PTSD?

You may be thinking to yourself, “What about PTSD?” That’s a great question.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that is outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders—the manual that psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose patients. The criteria that one must meet in order to be diagnosed with PTSD includes:

  • being exposed to a traumatic event (or events)
  • having moments where one feels like they are reliving the event (either consciously or subconsciously)
  • avoidance of things related to the event
  • negative changes in thinking and mood and,
  • intense physical symptoms (shortness of breath, increased heart rate etc.) in reaction to reminders of the event.

A diagnosis of PTSD is helpful for some since it provides information about one’s mental health. The label also helps people access treatment for their PTSD. That said, it is also possible to have experienced trauma and not have PTSD. Some individuals do not meet the criteria for diagnosis and still experience relief from trauma-related distress upon receiving treatment.

What Treatment is Available for Trauma?

Common forms of treatment for trauma-related distress are:

  • Medication (most need a diagnosis to access medication)
  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group psychotherapy

If you think you may be impacted by trauma and are experiencing symptoms, there’s a good chance that treatment can help. Studies have shown that treatment is effective in relieving distress and many individuals maintain this progress in the long-term.

If you think you may benefit from treatment, try speaking to your family doctor or reach out to a counselling centre for support in exploring what could work for you.  We are also here if you want to talk more.



The Myth of Normal, a book by Gabor Maté, MD. Link to website about the book: https://drgabormate.com/book/the-myth-of-normal/

The Body Keeps the Score, a book by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. Link to website about the book: https://www.besselvanderkolk.com/resources/the-body-keeps-the-score

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, an article on the American Psychological Association official website, link to article: https://www.apa.org/topics/ptsd/