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a basic understanding of trauma

Updated: Apr 2

It seems like trauma is trending lately– we hear more about it in mainstream news, and it feels as though there’s much less stigma around mental health issues. Many people I know are comfortable talking about their own therapy, their past (and present) trauma, and many yoga teachers, personal trainers and movement coaches are learning how to make their work more trauma-informed. But what does that mean?

Let’s start with a simple working definition of trauma. It’s commonly said that trauma is caused by anything that is “too fast, too much, or too soon for our nervous system to handle.” Because each individual is different, what causes trauma for one person might not result in trauma for another.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) isn’t much help here– it lists only Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) under trauma-related “disorders” (I object to the use of the word “disorder”– what happens when our systems become overwhelmed by trauma is a completely natural response to a situation that we are unable to handle). Rather than thinking of trauma as something that can only happen after one big event (as in PTSD), we should recognize that trauma includes a broad spectrum of possibilities. Understanding that it includes anything that is overwhelming (too fast, too much, too soon)– then we can see that trauma can affect us all.

Almost all of us have been exposed to a traumatic event at some point in our lives. Remember that, just like non-human animals, each of us is equipped to be able to handle stressful events. However, there are some things that will always be too much– a situation that can’t be escaped, for example. When our defense systems are overwhelmed, we become “stuck” in a stress response.

an image showing a cartoon of a stressed person. It says "What causes trauma? Anything that is too fast, too much, or too soon for our nervous systems to handle."