This article is inspired by my experiences as an educator and clinician and an article in the The Salon, March 2023
There’s no question that numerous people across the world experience trauma every day — yet the word “trauma” is increasingly being used to describe experiences that might not really be traumatic. That may not seem like a big deal, yet some psychologists say that the trivialization of the word might make it hard to differentiate real trauma from everyday unpleasantness.
For example, an “American Idol” contestant recently claimed to be “traumatized” by some offhand feedback from Katy Perry. A brief scan of TikTok videos labeled with the hashtag #trauma reveals the extent to which the term “trauma” has entered the casual lexicon to refer to mild annoyances or cringey moments, rather than truly traumatic events.
“Anytime we use words that have deeper meanings, it does discount the true meaning and experience for someone that is experiencing the true definition of that word.” In the 60s Marshall McLuhan, author of “the Media is the Message” said the media was the e and wrote about “overkill”, meaning when something is used over and over against loses its meaning and efficacy. Is this the way the word “trauma is going?
Trauma — as both a theory and reading topic — has, in recent decades, enjoyed a renaissance in the realm of pop psychology. Popular books like “The Body Keeps the Score,” which unpacked the relationship of trauma to one’s physical body, have contributed to a larger audience reading and understanding the topic. Yet one must ask is the word being overused and to what extent can that do more harm than good.
The word “trauma” appeared in English in the late 1600s, although at the time it more generally referred to a physical wound. In the late 19th century, scientists began using it to refer to psychic wounds as well. In the same time period, French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot suggested that patients experiencing symptoms associated with what doctors then called “hysteria” perhaps actually had a history of trauma.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the verb “traumatize” was used to refer to something psychologically harmful — a time period when, incidentally, millions of World War 2 veterans were experiencing the as-yet-unnamed post-traumatic stress disorder. (PTSD wasn’t formally named until 1978, in part due to the experiences of Vietnam veterans.)
Nowadays, the concept of trauma — and the idea that it causes suffering — is well-established in psychology. The American Psychological Association describes trauma as an “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61 percent of adults experience an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs), meaning a potentially traumatic event that occurred in childhood. ACEs include abuse, violence or growing up in a family with mental health or substance abuse issues. “Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress,” the CDC states. “ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.”it is common for individuals to search for suitable words to describe their experiences, and at times, they may unknowingly use words that carry a more different meaning than what they intended. “‘Trauma’ is one of those words,” Marshall said. “People might say ‘I had a traumatic ride to work today’ or ‘I was traumatized by the discussion.’ The problem with using this word in these ways [is] it dilutes its meaning and power of describing a true traumatic event.”
According to Marshall, such use of the word “trauma” suggests quotidian difficulties are comparable to living through a genuine traumatic experience that invokes a trauma response. This may trivialize the experience of those who have suffered from trauma. Marshall compared the casual use of the word “trauma” to being “depressed” or “bipolar.”
“People also say ‘I am depressed’ when they mean sad or down,” Marshall said. “Or ‘I feel bipolar’ when they mean their mood is up and down today; anytime we use words that have deeper meanings, it does discount the true meaning and experience for someone that is experiencing the true definition of that word.”
Psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear,” said the word “trauma” itself has a variety of different connotations and may mean different things to different people. But to a psychologist, it’s used to refer to “serious psychological damage.”When we dilute psychological terms such as trauma — applying weighty terminology to commonplace, everyday matters — we face the serious risk of minimizing mental health issues.”
Psychologist Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear,” said the word “trauma” itself has a variety of different connotations and may mean different things to different people. But to a psychologist,The APA further explains that when a person experiences trauma after a traumatic event, “shock and denial are typical.” “Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea,” the APA states. “While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.” More broadly, and perhaps a little more complicated, the APA says that a trauma happens after events that “often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.”
“When we dilute psychological terms such as trauma — applying weighty terminology to commonplace, everyday matters — we face the serious risk of minimizing mental health issues and the difficult experiences of those who suffer from them,” Manly said. “For example, a person who experiences chronic hypervigilance and anxiety due to PTSD may be helped by using the term ‘trauma’ to identify and describe their experiences.”
Manly added that by using the word “traumatic” to refer to mundane life experiences, like a challenging workday or bad haircut, “can downgrade the seriousness of genuine trauma.”
Let me know
- What do you think of the word Trauma?
- How do you use the word in everyday talk?
- How do you teach your clients about trauma?
- How do you go from trauma to growth?