What is Trauma?

Trauma can be defined as any single, ongoing or cumulative experience which:

  • Is a response to a perceived threat
  • Overwhelms our capacity to cope
  • Feels or is outside our control
  • Evokes a physiological and psychological set of responses based on fear or avoidance.
A potentially traumatising event is any event that overwhelms the infant or child’s capacity to cope.  This can be a one off event or ongoing in nature. (Nijenhuis, 2005)

Trauma occurs when an event is so frightening it causes a prolonged alarm reaction, where the body is primed and pumped with chemicals and enzymes such as adrenaline and does not calm down for a long time.  In any person, this creates an altered neurological state.  The severity depends on a number of factors, including previous experiences of trauma and the availability of support. 

At the moment, the victim is (made) helpless by overwhelming force… Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning. (Herman, 1992/1997).

Simple Trauma

Simple trauma is overwhelming and painful.  It involves experiences of events that are life threatening and/or have the potential to cause serious injury. These are often:

  • Single incidents
  • Shorter in duration
  • Involving a discrete crises
  • Have less stigma associated with them, where this is no social blaming of the victims
  • Generally have a supportive and helpful community response

Simple trauma includes experiences of being in car accidents, house fires, bushfires, earthquakes and cyclones for instance.

Experiencing one traumatic event will increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing another traumatic event.

Complex Relational Trauma

The term ‘complex trauma’ was adopted by the traumatic stress field to describe the experience of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events.  This is most often of an interpersonal nature (e.g. sexual or physical abuse, war, community violence) and has an early-life onset.  It generally:

  • Includes multiple incidents over an extended period of time
  • Is longer in duration
  • Occurs within a child's caregiving system
  • Interferes with neurobiological development and the capacity to integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive information into a cohesive whole
  • Is almost always associated with stigma, blaming and a sense of shame experienced by its victims
  • Is an isolating experience due to the interpersonal element, often underpinned by intentionality
  • Includes a sense of disconnection from others and their support
  • Community responses are often not helpful with further blaming and disempowering the targets of the violence
  • Has a powerful relationship to adult health later in life

Examples of complex trauma include experiences of child abuse, neglect, bullying, domestic violence, rape, war and imprisonment.

Intergenerational Trauma

This refers to trauma that is transferred from one generation to another.  This generational interchange, specifically from parent to child, can also be termed as multigenerational or transgenerational.  Usually this relates to the impact of trauma experiences affecting the ability to parent.  This can be as extreme as instances of neglect or abuse or more subtle, such as the transfer of the parent's internal belief about the world or poor emotion regulation.  For example, where a parent learns from their own traumatic experiences that the “world is an unsafe place” they then pass this belief onto their child.

Understanding Trauma

The effect of trauma varies depending on it's nature and severity. The nature of the trauma relates to:

  • Who it happened to
  • Who it was done by
  • What happened
  • How often it happened
  • When it happened

The severity of a trauma is based on the proximity (how close it was to the person), prolonged nature (how long it lasted for), and interpersonal nature (between people i.e. family or strangers)

Complex trauma impacts on a young persons belief about themselves and others, their brain, emotional regulation, sense of safety and attachment.  A neurobiological understanding of trauma offers explanations about the way it affects the following aspects of children’s development: Body, Brain, Emotions, Memory, Relationships, Learning and Behaviour.

Further Resources