This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "It Didn't Start With You" by Mark Wolynn. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What qualifies as trauma? How can you help someone who is suffering from trauma?
Most people believe that trauma stems from large-scale stressful situations such as kidnappings or participating in a war effort. However, most traumas originate from smaller-scale situations.
Keep reading to learn about what qualifies as trauma, the two types of trauma, and how you can help people exhibiting trauma symptoms.
What Qualifies as Trauma?
Do everyday stresses and complaints qualify as “trauma”? Are we all traumatized, just to different degrees? In his book It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn discusses the symptoms and sources of trauma. However, he doesn’t answer what defines trauma or put any boundaries around what it includes. Let’s examine others’ views on this topic.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma is “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence”—either experienced directly or as a witness. Some argue that this definition rightly circumscribes the definition of trauma to include only the most severe and devastating experiences. As a result, people are encouraged to distinguish truly catastrophic and life-altering events from those that are merely unpleasant. This reduces a “victim mentality” that leads people to feel helpless. This focused definition can also help people suffering from real trauma get the appropriate support and treatment.
Others, however, point out that such a restrictive definition overlooks the deep distress many people endure from non-life-threatening events, such as divorce or unfair accusations of abuse. Instead, they propose that we define trauma between “large T” and “small t” trauma.
The 2 Types of Trauma
Life-threatening events such as kidnappings, acts of terrorism, and serious car collisions would qualify as “large T” traumas. “Small t” trauma would encompass unpleasant events that are not life-threatening but that nevertheless cause some degree of hopelessness and compromise our ability to cope with stress. Examples include infidelity, divorce, and financial strain.
Although a single “small t” trauma may not alter someone’s life, many “small t” traumas can accumulate to significantly interfere with someone’s emotional health. Those who support differentiating between “small t” and “large T” trauma say this distinction helpfully acknowledges the very real consequences that stem from stress and overwhelm.
Regardless of how trauma is defined, it’s important to note that not all catastrophic or unpleasant events affect people the same way. For example, one person may be deeply traumatized by a natural disaster whereas another may emerge from the same experience relatively unaffected. How a person responds depends on a number of factors, including their beliefs, expectations, past experiences, and the level of support in their lives.
How You Can Support People Suffering From Trauma Symptoms
People with trauma symptoms sometimes freeze up and lose their words. They are simply unable to articulate what they’re feeling or experiencing. This can lead to some difficult interactions with the people in their lives who desperately want to support them. Now that you know what qualifies as trauma, here are some things you can do to offer support in these situations, according to trauma experts:
- Affirm their distress. This could be as simple as saying, “You went through something horrible. I can see how much you’re suffering.”
- Just be there, saying nothing. Sometimes just being present, without talking, helps to soothe someone in extreme distress.
- Acknowledge that you can’t fix their pain or fully understand it. You don’t need to have all the answers, and assuming you do can alienate the person you’re trying to support.
- Let them know they don’t need to talk unless they want to. Pressuring someone to discuss their feelings can escalate their distress and cause them more distress.
- Follow up regularly to make sure they know you’re thinking of them and are available for support.
- Guide them to mental health resources if you think they need professional support beyond your capabilities.
- Give them time to heal on their own terms. Never insinuate that they need to “get over it and move on.”
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Here's what you'll find in our full It Didn't Start With You summary :
- A look into the causes of persistent anxiety, depression, and illness
- How the traumas of your past are stopping you from being truly happy and free
- How to resolve deeply-rooted trauma by applying a unique therapeutic approach