It's human nature to try to organize information onto a continuum or into boxes. Especially during the course of an increased level of concern over a specific condition, we will evaluate the information we have, make a determination of what is of utmost importance, and throw resources at that hoping to extinguish the fires so we can turn back around and look more closely at the situations that didn't make the cut. Judgment, in these cases, is necessary.
Trauma tends to be one of these areas where we have been making judgments lately as a way to try to categorize information. Couple that with the fact that the word trauma has been used so often that it's starting to lose its definition, and we struggle to know how to deal with it in general. I think, however, that we are playing a dangerous game when we try to cast judgment of how "bad" a trauma is from our outside perspective, which is part of the "proof" that we are losing the meaning of the word.
Trauma is very personal. It is less about the situation and more about a human's ability to cope with the situation. The ability to cope, or resilience, is also very personal and can be because of a variety of factors such as environmental factors, personality, genetics (although current research has shown this is just a small factor), and social factors such as "environmental/caregiving conditions during childhood that are loving, emotionally responsive, consistent, and reliable" (Southwick et al., 2016). Not having the coping mechanisms necessary is nobody's fault, but they are something that can be cultivated and adapted over time and with effort. Because of this, when we start to make determinations of who has or has not been traumatized, or we determine whose trauma should or should not be worse or better, we are casting judgment of something that is not ours to judge. With the exception of the necessity of a clinical situation, we cannot categorize trauma for our own need to put something into a box or on a continuum.
I saw this early on in my career as a mental health advocate after my book The Fire Within came out and I opened the door for people to speak more openly about their trauma. During book studies or conversations with people, I may tell my story or they might tell theirs and immediately they would begin to question if their trauma was "as bad, worse, or not as bad" as mine which would beg the question, "Is my trauma valid?" The answer to this is always yes. If you have been wounded and you need to heal, it doesn't need to be in relation to someone else's wound or healing. It is yours and it is valid. The second we begin to judge others' trauma, we are invalidating their feelings, emotions, and wounds that went along with whatever happened. And the thing is, it's just not necessary.
Definitions of Trauma
To help define the word that has started to lose some of its meaning, here are some definitions of trauma.
Trauma: Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea (APA).
Big T and Little t Trauma: Different categories of trauma that attempt to differentiate between an adversity and a life-changing event that may psychologically change the way we function as a human. Some psychologists disagree with the use of these terms as they focus on situations versus the human's ability to cope in that situation. If categorizing a traumatic event ever makes the victim feel like they should not be traumatized because it's considered "little t", this issue would be the entire point of why it's not helpful. However, the terms are still used in some circles as a way to differentiate. Examples of how these situations are categorized are below.
Acute trauma: This results from a single stressful or dangerous event.
Chronic trauma: This results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events. Examples include cases of child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence.
Complex trauma: This results from exposure to multiple traumatic events.
Secondary trauma or vicarious trauma: With this form of trauma, a person develops trauma symptoms from close contact with someone who has experienced a traumatic event. (Definitions of acute, chronic, complex, and secondary attributed to Medical News Today)
The Opportunity to Heal
Clearly, there are other types of trauma that are important to note but I'd like to comment on a type of trauma that we often miss in schools for both students and educators and that is Chronic Trauma and its application to People of Color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities (including serious mental health issues). Chronic trauma can lead to a different type of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder called Complex PTSD or (CPTSD). For a bit of background, CPTSD is defined by Beauty After Bruises as:
"Complex PTSD comes in response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or, more often, years. This can include emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuses, domestic violence, living in a war zone, being held captive, human trafficking, and other organized rings of abuse, and more. While there are exceptional circumstances where adults develop C-PTSD, it is most often seen in those whose trauma occurred in childhood. For those who are older, being at the complete control of another person (often unable to meet their most basic needs without them), coupled with no foreseeable end in sight, can break down the psyche, the survivor’s sense of self, and affect them on this deeper level. For those who go through this as children, because the brain is still developing and they’re just beginning to learn who they are as an individual, understand the world around them, and build their first relationships – severe trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychologic and neurologic development.”
CPTSD is often undiagnosed and the trauma behaviors that result from it are often looked at as the "personality traits" (often undesirable ones) of the individual with it. As with PTSD, it can include triggers and be tricky to heal because the situation that caused it is so ongoing that the victim may not know what they're trying to heal to as it's so enmeshed with their identity.
I have CPTSD from being a victim of childhood abuse.
What I want to point out is that in these cases, the difference is not in the trauma or our judgment of the situation, but to me, it's in the opportunity for healing. When we "compare trauma" and try to decipher whose trauma is "worse" we are asking the wrong questions. Instead, we should be focusing on the opportunity to heal and the support necessary to get there. For me, childhood abuse was not worse or better than other types of trauma and my trauma, even if you don't know my exact situation, is valid. The difference is that I had the opportunity to heal. I was able to remove myself from the situation as I got older. Of course, there are ramifications for this: a lack of a parental figure in my life and a lack of family support and belonging - struggles that I continue to live with and I had to make extraordinarily difficult decisions that not everyone is willing to make. But I could remove myself from the situation in order to work on my own wounds and healing.
The potential for People of Color, people of LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities to develop CPTSD is high as they have grown up with the abuse of institutional racism and discrimination of their identities.
For People of Color, people of LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities the removal of themselves from the situation is impossible therefore impacting their ability to heal. Because institutional racism and discrimination are embedded everywhere they go and surround them no matter where they are, they don't have the same opportunity to evaluate their wounds and get the support they need. It is nearly impossible to heal from a situation while also going through it. They literally continue to be subjected to the racial and discriminatory abuse they experience every day taking away their opportunity for healing. Of course, Complex Trauma in these situations could also be put on a continuum if someone really tried, it shouldn't be. Instead, to me, part of understanding DEI work is to understand that checking DEI boxes doesn't heal the situation, just like being subjected to racism and discrimination doesn't allow the human to heal. Instead, true DEI work needs to be done to begin to fix the system to even give these groups the opportunity to begin their healing. When we cast judgment over other people and the necessity for them to heal, we should first recognize the environment that they are in and if they even have the chance because their trauma is not only valid, but the situation hasn't stopped.
If you feel you've suffered a trauma, your feelings are valid. If someone else tells you they feel traumatized, their feelings are valid as well no matter the seriousness of your respective situation. It is not necessary to judge someone else's trauma based on some arbitrary continuum that may or may not invalidate their feelings. What is important is that people (all people) have an opportunity to recognize their wounds and heal. The word trauma may be overused but that doesn't make it fake. It simply means that as humans and as a society we have a lot of healing to do.