Trauma is more complex than we think

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how the official definition of trauma keeps changing and how the concept is discussed as if it were entirely intuitive and clear-cut, when it’s actually much more complex.

I’ve become fascinated by how the concept of ‘trauma’ is used in public debate about mental health and the tension that arises between the clinical and rhetorical meanings of trauma.

One unresolved issue, which tests mental health professionals to this day, is whether ‘traumatic’ should be defined in terms of events or reactions.

Some of the confusion arises when we talk about “being traumatised”. Let’s take a typically horrifying experience – being caught in a war zone as a civilian. This is often described as a traumatic experience, but we know that most people who experience the horrors of war won’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD – the diagnosis designed to capture the modern meaning of trauma. Despite the fact that these sorts of awful experiences increase the chances of acquiring a range of mental health problems – depression is actually a more common outcome than PTSD – it is still the case that most people won’t develop them. Have you experienced trauma if you have no recognisable “scar in the psyche”? This is where the concept starts to become fuzzy.

We have the official diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD but actually lots of mental health problems can appear after awful events, and yet there is no ‘posttraumatic depression’ or ‘posttraumatic social phobia’ diagnoses.

To be clear, it’s not that trauma doesn’t exist but that it’s less fully developed as a concept than people think and, as a result, often over-simplified during debates.

Full article at the link below.

Link to Observer article on the shifting sands of trauma.

6 thoughts on “Trauma is more complex than we think”

  1. Since Wittgenstein (1953) and Quine (1960) we should be aware that concepts are not static and cannot be defined in a way that squares with all their usages. So the problem is that we have an intuitive way of using “trauma” that is different for everyone and context-dependent – not the best when it is supposed to be used for medical purposes, which we would like to leave little uncertainty as to what it is that is being described with it.

    This is simply the way language works, so there is no for it to be “fixed” (I don’t think fixing in the sense of agreeing on such a invariant definition is necessary or even useful, really). I think this is much rather a problem of
    a) the way that psychology often looks at phenomena as if they are static and things that exist in a vacuum (rather than fuzzy, continuous, context-dependent names for a range of observable behaviours) and
    b) how things are being communicated – the only way that you can make it more likely that someone gets what you have in mind is by providing them with an adequate amount of information. Clearly, just saying “X percent of all people had traumatic experiences” is going to leave a lot of people with a lot different ideas about what that actually means. The problem gets attenuated, though, the more context is provided, so after reading the paper you’ll likely have a much clearer idea about what this statement actually is meant to inform about.

  2. Varying physically trauma often leads to post traumatic stress/anxiety orders.

    Its not dis, after trauma its mostly inevitable, so in order, healing an awareness process.
    Some people shut it out, pain barers, showing how much pain one can take, psychological twaddle…

    ^shows emapthy

  3. Hmm, thanks for posting the article. Trauma should be relative to the individual. It is medical diagnoses like these, on size fits all, that are no longer adequate models to define people. Aah! Labels…
    If a person needs help, they should be able to get it. Ugh, so many factors…

  4. The symptom list might be too limiting. A person may not present with symptoms of PTSD according to the manual, but may drink excessively and beat his wife when feeling the stress of his trauma. It is likely a spectrum, and the fact of being part of a population in which everyone you know has had the same extreme experience and acknowledges may make a difference in the ability to integrate it successfully with one’s self.

  5. One unresolved issue, which tests mental health professionals to this day, is whether ‘traumatic’ should be defined in terms of events or reactions.”<—from the article above….

    Here we go again. More proof, as if it's needed.
    IT's *BOTH*. The same exact event will produce different results in different persons. And the exact same result in different persons can have varying causes. We're wasting our time with the obsolete "what's wrong with you" model, and need to speed acceptance of the far more useful "what's happened to you" model.
    Also, *THINK*, people:
    PTSD = Persons That Suffer Distress
    PTSD = Personal Touch Sensory Deprivation

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