What is trauma?


Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we are going to learn about understanding trauma and identify it as a form of stress.

From an early age, we learn from our stress. Life’s stresses inform our associations, and our later reactions, but gradually so. As we mentioned, accumulated experiences slowly and carefully affect how you see the world, how you process information, and how you understand other people. Your predictions and reactions have been shaped by a lifetime of experiences, some good and some bad.

But not all events have the same weight or impact. Not all stressful experiences follow the same pattern. 

Your brain and body do not give equal weight to all events.

Sometimes, specific events shape you more than you would like. Sometimes, just one event seems to demarcate who you “were” before, and who you “became” after that event. Those events often sit like stones in our mind and bodies. They weigh us down and affect multiple systems and processes well after the event itself passes. 

There may be one specific event, or multiple events in your life that completely overwhelmed you. That completely overpowered any ability to escape or confront the situation. 

These specific events may seem to shackle you to the past, somehow keeping you stuck in that moment when it happened. 


Even the most intense forms of stress can be chronic and gradual–for example, exposure to armed conflict or insecurity can be considered a form of chronic stress. On the other hand, sometimes specific incidents like an attack or sudden death of a loved one, can on their own, irrespective of what else is going on, be completely overwhelming. In those cases, stress can shock the body, overwhelming every system, all at once. This is what we call trauma.

Trauma is a stress that overwhelms your ability to cope.


In this way, trauma can be accumulated over time, as multiple stressors or chronic stress slowly overwhelm your brain’s and body’s ability to cope. Or it can be one incident so powerful and overwhelming that, by itself, it overwhelms the body with an intense stress response. 

Both cases–accumulated and acute trauma– have long-term effects on the brain, body, and behavior. 

While there are individual and cultural differences, there are also some universal similarities in what may 

happen within us after traumatic events. Importantly, no reaction to trauma is wrong. What matters is your personal reaction, and how you understand it, and how you cope with whatever reactions you may experience.