Recent years have raised a national call to action to understand trauma and the effects of trauma on mind and body. Many different definitions of trauma exists, and it is important to note that while one may associate trauma with an event itself (an accident, an injury, etc.), when we speak about trauma informed care, the focus is on the impact of the event(s), not the nature of the event(s). The following definitions help make this distinction:
- The inability of an individual or community to respond in a healthy way (physically, emotionally and/or mentally) to acute or chronic stress.
- A stressful event(s) has overwhelmed and thereby compromised the health and welfare of an individual or community.
- An exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope.
As the above definitions demonstrate, trauma can affect a single individual, or an entire community. Trauma has occurred when the person or community is overwhelmed, and can no longer cope with what they are experiencing. What causes the overwhelm will be different for everyone, and the same experience can be traumatic for one, and not for another. This is due to the fact that as individuals, we all have different coping mechanisms and immune systems.
A common example is two siblings whose parents’ divorce. One seems to take it very much in stride, while the other struggles handling the situation. The child who is having a hard time may become anxious, depressed, struggle at school or possibly turn to harmful coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol. This child’s capacity to cope has been overwhelmed; this child is experiencing trauma.
It is well documented that experiencing trauma puts one at an increased risk for experiencing negative physical, mental and emotional health outcomes throughout the lifespan. Trauma affects learning and the brain, as demonstrated by MRI scans.
The good news is that individuals experiencing trauma can absolutely still thrive. Identifying appropriate intervention channels is key. Research in the field of neuroscience demonstrates the brain holds a characteristic called plasticity. Plasticity refers to the property of any system, including the human brain, to be changed. Anytime we learn something new, we are actually forming new pathways in the brain. How this relates to trauma, is that with practice, anyone can learn positive coping techniques, ultimately mastering self-regulation.