What does trauma mean?

The word “trauma” has its origins in ancient Greek, where “τραῦμα” (trauma) or the term “τραυματικός” (traumatikos) described an injury from a wound. The concept of trauma in ancient Greek society was mainly focused on the physical aspect of injury rather than the psychological or emotional impact we associate with trauma today.

When did trauma become a psychological term?

It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that the field of psychiatry emerged, and early pioneers like Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet started studying what they called “hysteria” and dissociation, which are now understood as trauma-related phenomena. In the early 20th Century Sigmund Freud’s work on psychoanalysis and his theories on hysteria and traumatic neurosis paved the way for understanding the psychological impact of trauma. In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association included “gross stress reaction” (the main causal factor was listed as stressful environmental events, such as natural disasters or war) in the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I), laying the foundation for the formal recognition of trauma-related disorders.

Later the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) gained prominence in the 1970s over its previously used term ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’ and in 1980 PTSD was formally recognised in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), solidifying its place in psychiatric diagnoses. The 1990s saw significant advancements in trauma research, including the development of trauma-specific therapies like Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

The growth in Trauma experts

Early less known trauma experts are Janet E. Helms who has been active in the field of psychology and trauma research since the 1970s and refers to racism and trauma. Lenore Terr’s influential book “Too Scared to Cry” was published in 1990, where she discussed trauma and its impact on children and Allan Schore who has been a prominent figure in the field of attachment theory and trauma research since the 1990s. Judith Lewis Herman also published a ground-breaking book “Trauma and Recovery” 1992, presenting her definition of trauma and its effects on survivors of traumatic events. Also Laura Brown’s contributions to the field of trauma and feminist therapy have spanned several decades.

More popular academics include:

  1. Bessel van der Kolk – (author of The Body Keeps the Score) delves beyond the event itself in understanding trauma and explores the deep impact trauma has on our emotional regulation and physical sensations. He highlights the significance of fragmented memories and bodily responses, and so looks at understanding trauma’s lasting effects in a more holistic way. (https://www.besselvanderkolk.com/)
  2. Stephen Porges – Stephen Porges revolutionized trauma research with his ground-breaking Polyvagal Theory. Unlike conventional perspectives, Porges focuses on how trauma affects our autonomic nervous system and social engagement responses. By understanding trauma’s impact on our physiological responses, his approach brings a new dimension to trauma healing and self-regulation.
  3. Pat Ogden – Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy approach stands out for its focus on the body’s role in trauma processing. By recognising that trauma is not solely stored in memories and thoughts, but also in the nervous system and physiology, she offers unique tools to address trauma’s physical manifestations. Her approach empowers individuals to navigate their healing journey through embodied experiences. (https://sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org/)
  4. Richard Schwartz – Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy introduces a fresh perspective on trauma by viewing the mind as a system of parts. His approach acknowledges the complexity of trauma responses within ourselves, guiding individuals to identify and heal their inner conflicts. By addressing internal conflicts, his method provides a transformative way to work through trauma-related challenges.
  5. Daniel J. Siegel – Daniel J. Siegel’s work in interpersonal neurobiology brings a unique focus on the integration of mind, brain, and relationships in trauma healing. His approach emphasises the significance of secure attachments and neural integration for trauma recovery. By exploring how trauma disrupts brain integration, his work paves the way for understanding the interconnectedness of emotional and neural responses.
  6. Babette Rothschild – Babette Rothschild’s trauma treatment work centres around “The Trauma Spectrum” concept, acknowledging that trauma varies in intensity and impact. Her body-oriented techniques offer a distinctive perspective on addressing trauma’s physiological effects, enabling individuals to explore their healing journey at their own pace.
  7. Janina Fisher – Janina Fisher’s expertise in complex trauma and dissociation brings unique insights into the inner world of trauma survivors. Her focus on overwhelming experiences and fragmented parts of the self highlights the importance of self-identity and emotional regulation in trauma recovery. By recognising these complexities, her approach offers a compassionate path to integration and healing.
  8. Dr. Gabor Mate – Dr. Gabor Maté’s work on trauma, addiction, and health stands out for its emphasis on culture’s role in trauma creation. By exploring how societal norms and toxic environments contribute to trauma, he sheds light on the systemic impact on individuals. His approach challenges us to confront the broader context of trauma, paving the way for societal healing and understanding.

Each of these experts brings a distinct perspective to trauma, expanding our understanding and offering a diverse range of approaches for trauma healing. By embracing the uniqueness of their work, we gain valuable insights into the multi-faceted nature of trauma recovery and find pathways to resilience and growth.

Trauma today

Since 2020, there has been a significant increase in mental health awareness, especially in the wake of the pandemic. While this has been beneficial in promoting understanding and transparency about mental health struggles, there is a concern that the term “trauma” is being used casually and without proper understanding. This desensitisation can lead to a lack of appreciation for the real impact of trauma on individuals’ psychological well-being. People genuinely facing trauma-related difficulties might hesitate to seek help due to fears of not being taken seriously or being perceived as attention-seekers.

While it’s essential to acknowledge that challenging experiences are a part of life, the overuse of the word “trauma” may downplay the emotional pain experienced by individuals. It is crucial to find a balance in using the term responsibly to ensure that those genuinely affected by trauma receive the support they need.

Many individuals from various populations have endured prolonged pain, and having a label to explain their experiences can be empowering. It allows them to be seen and heard, holding others accountable for the harm caused. However, moving forward, we must take collective responsibility for transcending our pain and supporting each other in the healing journey. Finding ways to accept and process our individual and collective pain will pave the way for genuine growth and support.

If you would like some help in understanding how or whether trauma has impacted you, get in touch today with Dr Gurpreet Kaur and her team by filling out this brief form. We’ve previously written a post about how to heal from trauma which you might also find helpful.

Man is affected, not by events, but by the view he takes of them.
– Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

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Dr Gurpreet Kaur, Chartered Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Practitioner

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