Surging to the forefront of mental health research, the concept of trauma is becoming part of everyday vernacular. Hearing references to trauma can be somewhat confusing because it has begun taking on a range of meanings. In one conversation you might hear trauma referred to in the more traditional sense of “military related post-traumatic stress disorder with flashbacks and nightmares” and in another context someone may refer to trauma as “something that made me uncomfortable.” So, let’s talk about this and try to find a common understanding of what trauma even is.
Trauma, like most human experiences, sits on a spectrum. Most are familiar with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is the only diagnosable expression of trauma. PTSD is the result of experiencing or witnessing a violent or life-threatening event. It manifests with nightmares, flashbacks and hyper-reactivity to stimuli in the environment (think fight or flight response). Folks with PTSD often avoid environments that remind them of the traumatic experience, recalling the experience altogether and often recount feeling generally unsafe. This is the understanding of trauma from which social science research started and continues to develop.
But you might be saying, “I think I’ve experienced trauma but don’t relate to any of that.” That is because PTSD is a specific expression of trauma. Another type of trauma is betrayal trauma, in which a highly trusted primary attachment figure (the person from whom your interpersonal attachment style will be most influenced; parent/guardian) could have failed to meet physical or emotional needs and/or causes or has caused direct harm to the one in their care. Betrayal trauma often manifests in relationship difficulties, anxiety and/or depression.
Another type of trauma is religious trauma. Historically, religious trauma has been directly tied to cult activities. A deeper dive suggests that perhaps there is something more wide-spread and relatable to religious trauma. More and more, religious trauma is being understood as religious experiences that imbed guilt, shame and promote conceptions that the self is bad or evil. Being overly fearful of punishment in the afterlife, intense feelings of existential dread and negative self-worth, poor self-esteem and feelings of diminished autonomy are common from experiencing religious or betrayal traumas.
Ultimately, both religion and primary attachment figures can vitally influence how you view and understand both yourself and the world, especially during childhood and adolescence. How you view yourself and the world inherently impacts your sense of belonging, your sense of self-worth, self-efficacy and problem solving — all of which are often seen in anxious or depressed thoughts and feelings.
The reality is that we all experience trauma — and, for one reason or another (far beyond our own control), we are not all traumatized in the same sense. Experiences in the world that make us uncomfortable are not necessarily traumatic experiences. They may just be experiences that force us to grow and/or change our perception of the things around us. These experiences don’t necessarily leave lasting challenges in the same way that PTSD does. For other types of traumas, we see other common symptoms: most notably, depression and/or anxiety. If you’ve experienced traumas such as betrayal or religious trauma, you can still receive treatment, but your diagnosis likely won’t be trauma because the only diagnosable expression of trauma is PTSD.
This, of course, isn’t a comprehensive list of trauma as the field still has a fairly limited understanding of overall scope. Some folks think the definition of trauma should be expanded — some think it’s already too expansive. What do you think?
Jon Wisdom is a student at Boston University in a dual-degree program. He is working toward a Master of Divinity as well as clinical Social Work specializing in Trauma and Violence. Previously he worked as an interfaith hospital chaplain and holds a masters degree in Spiritual Care. Jon has pursued this integrated learning with the hope of working with queer individuals with religious trauma. As a queer man, he knows this is a complex issue that requires a lot of existential exploration which can be personally challenging.
In practice, Jon prioritizes affirming and patient-centered care. He uses modalities such as Phase Oriented Trauma Treatment, Motivational Interviewing (MI), Solution Focused Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), narrative approaches, psychodynamics and operates with an anti-oppression framework. His goal as a therapist is to provide space for his clients to come as they are and for them to know that they have inherent worth and value.
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