Trauma Defined by ‘How’ Not by ‘What’

What Happened vs. How It Affected You

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Trauma is not as much about “the what” of what happened to a person, as it is about how the event overwhelmed that person’s ability to cope with it. Too often clients say, “I don’t have trauma.” The main reason clients say this is they do not recognize how an event impacts them, and instead only how another might view the event. First, let me say that there are certain things, that most of us reading this could agree are traumatic. Some common examples of trauma are: various types of abuse, neglect, serious illness, a sudden death, or a serious accident (this is not an exhaustive list). 

Defining Trauma

Anything can be traumatic depending on how it impacts a person’s ability to cope with it. This means that trauma is not as objective as some might think. Instead, trauma must be defined by the person experiencing it. For example, two different people are bit by a dog. Their bites are similar in severity and neither requires medical attention. The first person always had dogs, has been bit several different times, and as a result is able to put this bite into context. The other person does not have experience with dogs and and as a result, develops a strong fear of them. The first person has no trauma, But the second person has trauma, and is overwhelmed and struggles to cope with their fear of dogs.

Big T Traumas/Small t traumas

The example in the previous paragraph is an example of a small t trauma. Now let’s look more closely at how traumas are categorized. First, “Big T” Traumas are events that most would agree result in trauma (like the ones I listed above). Then, “small t” traumas are for all of the other life events that might create trauma for one person, and not for another. No trauma is better or worse, they are just different. Traumas, like apples and oranges, cannot be compared. Remember, even two people who have experienced a similar type of trauma can have very different reactions. 

Protective Factors and Risk Factors

Why do different people have different responses to a similar traumatic events? The number of reasons is probably as diverse as there are people, but I see some primary factors at play. These are grouped into protective factors and risk factors that help determine how information is coded after an event. 

  1. Protective factors: What I classify as protective factors are: 
  • first, solid coping skills,
  • second, significant supportive people in a person’s life, 
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  • third, the willingness to seek out help as needed, and 
  • finally, resilience. 

Resilience is an ability to bounce back from difficult situations. Remember, some people seem to have a natural ability to do so, and others can learn skills that improve resilience.

  1. Risk factors: What I classify as some relevant risk factors are: 
  • first, lacking a support system that is healthy and responsive, 
  • second, prior trauma history, and 
  • finally, unhealthy coping skills. 

With that said, some may have all of the protective factors, and still end up with trauma. Having trauma does not mean that you are weak. It does not mean that you have done something to deserve what happened or how it affected you. There is always hope. The bottom line is that trauma is sometimes unavoidable as a consequence of living life. 


The take away is this, trauma doesn’t have to control a person’s life. There are effective treatments to move a person through the trauma and back into living a full and beautiful life. If you find yourself in a position of having had trauma don’t wait to reach out for help. There are so many professionals that can help you with, and through your suffering. Please, don’t give up. It doesn’t matter your age, the length of time you waited for treatment, or any other reason you might fear you are beyond help. There is always hope.