Content Warning: this article briefly mentions abuse, rape, neglect and domestic violence within the context of defining trauma.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Labour MP for Nottingham East, Nadia Whittome spoke about the response to her announcement back in May of this year, that she was taking time off due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

“That speculation, that I couldn’t have PTSD because I haven’t been in a war, that I’d even diagnosed myself or that it was a result of reading the mean comments about myself online …”

The trail off at the end of this statement, is full of dismay and frustration and is emblematic of an experience so many can relate to.

This incident is part of a wider cultural phenomena where the definition of trauma has historically been both, misunderstood and reduced and in some instances, ‘gatekept’ by military personnel and veterans. In reality, modern understandings of trauma are much more nuanced.

Definitions of trauma

On the Centre for Anxiety Disorders website, they define trauma as: ‘a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing’ and that, ‘When loosely applied, this trauma definition can refer to something upsetting, such as being involved in an accident, having an illness or injury, losing a loved one, or going through a divorce. However, it can also encompass the far extreme and include experiences that are severely damaging, such as rape or torture.’

With this understanding of trauma, we can see that trauma itself is subjective and relative to any number of factors such as previous experiences, pre-existing conditions, hereditary conditions and general resilience.

The Centre for Anxiety Disorders also emphasises that definitions of trauma are ‘more of a guideline’. To have a broader understanding of trauma and encapsulate more human experiences within the confines of its definitions, it may be beneficial to consider it under the umbrella term of ‘emotional and psychological trauma’. Within this umbrella term there are sub-categories that have been developed by psychologists to better differentiate and understand types of trauma, the following are laid out as the three main understood and researched categories.

Complex Trauma

‘The effects of complex trauma are cumulative.’

Complex trauma, which often leads to complex PTSD (CPTSD) is trauma that develops over time, often relational and frequently from a young age. The mental health charity, Mind states that traumatic events that can cause CPTSD include:

  • ‘childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment
  • ongoing domestic violence or abuse
  • repeatedly witnessing violence or abuse
  • being forced or manipulated into prostitution (trading sex)
  • torture, kidnapping or slavery
  • being a prisoner of war’

Mind also lists a number of reasons why someone might be more likely to develop CPTSD, these include: experiencing trauma at an early age, persistent trauma, multiple traumas, being harmed by someone close to you, escape or rescue unlikely or impossible.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This is frequently the disorder most known to the public and associated with military personnel and veterans. PTSD is more often linked to a single event or long-term, but singular experience, such as a military deployment, natural disaster, attack, or vehicle accident. This disorder comes with the staple symptoms of flashbacks, hypervigilance, or hyperarousal where the individual is on ‘high alert’, persistent, frightening and all-consuming thoughts about the experience, an individual will also actively do things to avoid being triggered into re-experiencing their trauma such as: avoiding loud places if a trigger is unexpected loud bangs.

Developmental Trauma

As stated on the Centre for Anxiety Disorders’ website, this is the most recent addition to the psychological study of trauma. Often cited as forming during the ‘first three years of life’, developmental trauma is frequently as a result of various types of abuse, both emotional and physical, neglect and abandonment and is usually inflicted by a parent or caregiver.

It is important to acknowledge, as the Centre for Anxiety Disorders does, that this abuse and neglect is rarely intentional, ‘rather, it happens because they are not aware of the social and emotional needs of children’.

Increasing the understanding of developmental trauma and developmental trauma disorder is essential in developing more specific and targeted trauma therapies for those who have been impacted by it, this is because, as Bessel Van Der Kolk put it:

“PTSD is a good definition for acute trauma in adults. However, when the trauma occurs in childhood, because children’s brains are still developing, trauma has a much more pervasive and long-range influence on their self-concept, on their sense of the world and on their ability to regulate themselves.”

Owing to trauma’s highly subjective and relative nature, these three categories are likely to coexist within one individual, especially when the likelihood of developing some kind of trauma disorder later in life increases if an individual has already experienced previous traumas.

Why it is important to reframe the cultural definition of trauma

Armed with this knowledge and information from the psychological field of study, it is clear that the outdated understanding of trauma and PTSD that reduces its application to only: military personnel, veterans and those who have experienced extreme trauma such as rape or torture, is not only restrictive, but incorrect. Most importantly, claiming that those who haven’t been through an ‘obvious’ trauma, cannot develop a trauma disorder, is denying a very real and valid experience.