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What is considered traumatizing?

What exactly makes an event traumatizing, and why do some individuals experience traumatic events without being traumatized?

In this video, I tried to answer this puzzling question by explaining the subjective nature of trauma, and discussing the factors that contribute to individual experiences of trauma.

Defining Trauma

I keep working on an encompassing definition of trauma. This is the one that seems to include asll the elements of the phenomenon:

Trauma is long-lasting disruption of an individual’s neurobiological, psychological, and social optimal functioning resulting from unresolved emotional and physiological responses to overwhelming experiences perceived as threatening and defeating.

Once we understand that traumatic is not the same as traumatizing, we can then move to understand that an experience is considered traumatizing when it has a lasting impact in your mental health.

So, a traumatic event becomes 'traumatizing' when it directly affects you by making you feel in constant danger, whether in reality or through your perception. But of course, what is damaging can be highly subjective, varying from person to person based on factors such as personal experiences, cultural background, etc.

Subjectivity of Traumatic Experiences

What may be traumatizing to one person may not be to another. The subjective nature of trauma is influenced by various factors, including personal experiences, cultural background, emotional regulation abilities, and social support systems. This means that almost any event could be potentially traumatizing if it overwhelms an individual's emotional stability, disrupts their ability to function normally, and leaves them feeling constantly at risk.

Here are some examples:

  • A child witnessing their mother fainting could be a traumatizing experience because their survival depends on their mother's well-being. Without a mother, they will anticipate the end of their life.

  • A father burdened by debt, losing their job could be as frightening as facing death. He may feel that his family will not survive without him providing, his parents and friends will reject him, he will be a pariah.

  • For someone who has never been in a severe accident before but knows about someone that died in one, experiencing a car crash could be deeply traumatizing.

  • For a child or teenager, being subjected to persistent bullying could be traumatizing. The ongoing harassment and humiliation can make them feel constantly targeted and unsafe in their environment, imagining a life without friends or someone that could love and accept them.

As you may appreciate, these subjective events have the potential to be traumatizing not because what's actually happening, but because the person's mental state is defeating, and feels they can't overcome the situation.

Even in cases where there is no doubt an event is traumatic, since it is by definition dangerous and puts us at risk, it is not necessarily traumatizing because we have many tools to assess the level of risk, develop plans for solutions, and access internal mechanisms to recover a sense of hope that helps our system stay balanced and stable.

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