Degrees of Trauma; Trauma Continuum

trauma word web

Trauma is a new buzzword in society today.

It shows up in movies and television shows. It is recognized as critical in dealing with challenging behaviors of children when daycares or other school settings become trauma-informed. Gradually even our court systems are beginning to acknowledge that trauma may play a part in criminal behaviors. There even was a law passed by Congress in mid-September called The Opioid Crisis Relief Act that contains several trauma-informed provisions.

There are very valid reasons for all this attention being paid to the subject of trauma. There is enough scientific evidence to demonstrate that trauma is real and that it can have devastating consequences for children, adults, families, communities and society in general. Readers are encouraged to check out websites on trauma such as ACEs Connection the CDC, and any of the myriad of other organizations who continue to update this research.

With this growing attention being paid to the subject of trauma, it is important for all of us to become highly informed about the nature of trauma, what can be done to prevent it in the first place, and some of the ways we all need to learn to respond to a person who has experienced one or more significant traumas.

magnifying glass over cartoon brainIn learning about the nature of trauma, it is important to appreciate that we should place traumas on a continuum to indicate the degree of severity. An analogy for understanding this is the nature of experiencing burns. There can be some mild pain associated with minor burns. Recovery can be almost immediate, especially if cold water is applied. These kinds of burns are analogous to minor traumas that hurt in the moment but for which the body has ways to quickly resolve them and leave little or no residual issues other than perhaps a new wariness to avoid being burned again.

Continuing with the analogy, some people have more sensitive skin and it may take them longer to recover than someone with less sensitive skin. It also depends where on the body the burn happens, with some areas less prone to a strong reaction to the heat. When considering where on this continuum trauma may fall, trauma is very personal and what causes a minor reaction for one person might cause a much more significant reaction in another person. Where in that person’s inner world the trauma causes damage also determines how significant it is.

As with burns, the more severe they are, the deeper they are, and the more damage done as a result. Once burns are second or third degree, there often needs to be medical intervention. The degrees of burns can go as high as six degrees, in which case a person dies.

trauma stampThere are degrees of trauma that can be so powerful they literally destroy much of a person’s emotional health and make it nearly impossible for them to experience healing. However, emotional trauma, in the right care setting, have the potential to heal to some degree, unlike traumas involving extreme physical burns.

As students of trauma, we know that one fundamental understanding is that trauma comes in various levels of severity, based on how it impacts a person. Sometimes children or adolescents say things like, “Oh I am traumatized because I didn’t get invited to XYZ’s party.” Typically, what they mean is that they are upset, not deeply traumatized.

Again, because the word is becoming so commonplace, it can be misused to describe things that are troubling, annoying, frustrating or even somewhat overwhelming. Being able to appreciate this continuum of trauma severity allows us to be appropriately sensitive in our understanding of what someone has experienced and might need.

Each person’s traumatic experiences are personal in nature and the level of trauma is determined by its impact, not by what actually occurred.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Consider times in your life when you experienced a level of trauma that was briefly painful, or a time when you felt scared and upset but that you recovered from quickly. Consider if there were times when you would see some of the upsetting events in your life fall further down the continuum of how traumatized you were.
  2. Consider times in your children’s lives when they may have been mildly traumatized all the way down the continuum to seriously traumatized by something. How were their behaviors different? Or the same? To what degree did they recover on their own or did they need help in recovering? To what degree might some of what they experienced still be causing them pain? To what extent might some of these have left emotional scars?

Diane Wagenhals
Director, Lakeside Global Institute