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Experts explain

  • June 22, 2021

Prince Harry said in his docuseries with Oprah Winfrey that addressing the trauma of his mother’s death was essential for his own well-being as well as the health of his marriage. Earlier this year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke about the way the trauma she’s lived through as a survivor of sexual assault and the Capitol riot “compounds on each other.” People of color are demanding greater recognition for the mental and physical toll racial trauma takes on their lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a series of traumatic events. 

“It is a political act to talk about trauma because for so long so much exploitation and perpetration and victimization was hidden and not acknowledged,” said Emily Sachs, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma. “People who were the subject of that were blamed for their problems. And that still goes on today.”

While some people are working to raise awareness about the prevalence of trauma, others are inadvertently diluting the term, often by using it hyperbolically: “I’m traumatized by what I ate last night” or “I accidentally killed my plant and now I’m traumatized.” 

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“I think it’s a double edged sword because by these terms coming into our everyday vernacular it’s almost normalizing talking about these things, but at the same time it is absolutely minimizing the true effects of these disorders,” said psychotherapist Janel Cubbage. “Talking about mental health and all of these conditions is good, but the way that we talk about it really matters.”

What is trauma?

Trauma is both what happens to a person and their reaction to it, Sachs said. It generally refers to intense and overwhelming experiences that involve serious loss, threat or harm to a person’s physical and/or emotional well being. 

Many trauma experts define the term broadly in their work as a way of offering patients agency in identifying the trauma in their own lives. 

“There’s value in excluding some things from what trauma might be … but at the same time, I think that we can’t have an overly narrow definition where we deny the reality of a person’s experience,” said clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan. “It’s valuable to be as inclusive as we can without diluting the term so much that then it becomes meaningless.”

Cubbage said sometimes people conflate trauma with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has its own clinical definition and outlines clusters of specific symptoms. Not everyone who experiences trauma will experience PTSD, but that doesn’t mean they’re not having prolonged difficulty functioning.

Many clinicians also argue the definition for PTSD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) – whose criteria begins with “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” – is limiting. Cubbage said it fails to address certain types of relational and racial trauma. 

“If you think about someone who got cheated on by their partner, that very well can be traumatic for people but that would not meet the criteria for PTSD,” Cubbage said. “Repeatedly watching videos of someone who looks like you being murdered by police officers or experiencing hate crimes can be traumatic, but … would not meet the criteria for PTSD. So there are a lot of issues just in terms of the way that trauma has been clinically conceptualized.”

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