What is Trauma?

When trauma is understood as a response to a single event or series of events, then treatment often focuses on the person who has been harmed. However, it is essential to broaden our understanding of the source of trauma to better understand the experiences of marginalized communities, such as communities of color. In addition to affecting individuals, trauma can be transmitted through systems or passed down through generations and become social or historical trauma.

Individual Trauma

  • What it is

    When everyday challenges and adversity happen in our lives, our bodies respond in ways that help us cope and adapt. However, when we experience heightened fear, violence, loss, and more long-lasting challenges, such experiences overwhelm our normal ways of coping. This may actually release chemicals in our bodies that can rewire the brain. This type of stress is very toxic. Complex trauma is the result of multiple sources of traumatic experiences that accumulate over time.
  • What's the impact?

    A traumatic event or events can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many people have heard of PTSD in returning war veterans, but PTSD can develop after other traumatic events as well, such as violent victimization or extreme loss such as murder. PTSD can result in mood changes, aggressive behavior, poor diet, chronic nightmares, and/or hypervigilance. A hypervigilant person spends tremendous energy worrying about and trying to avoid stressful events that trigger fear. Children who experience what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, hostility, difficulties with social relationships, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, job loss, suicide, and physical health challenges.
  • Healing

    Trauma treatment can provide meaningful care for those impacted by crime and other forms of trauma. To be effective, services must be culturally relevant and situated within systems that survivors trust. The person receiving the treatment must be willing to be healed, have community and social support, and be able to access systems that are responsive to the needs of trauma survivors. Unfortunately, many people suffering from trauma have no access to such services, and may not even know there is treatment for their suffering.
  • For example...

    An example of individual trauma might be the experience of someone who has lost a loved one to murder. EJUSA has worked with many family members of murder victims over the past ten years. Many of them have shared with us that they experience nightmares, depression, or overwhelming feelings of grief from which they can't recover. Events like anniversaries of the murder or their loved one's birthday can trigger these symptoms long after the event. Traumatic grief is different from other forms of grief, and there are healing processes that specialize in it.

Trauma in Systems

  • What it is

    A system that provides inadequate resources and support for individuals can also cause trauma. For example, poverty is often seen as a root cause of many traumatic life experiences and adversity. Poverty stems from larger economic and political systems. When trauma is understood as a broader failure of a system, then we must implement larger structural changes.
  • What's the impact?

    Trauma within systems can have long-term impact on survivors. For example, people of color who experience systemic oppression may be reluctant to seek services or care from the systems that have caused past harm. When patterns of trauma are embedded within several systems, one may refer to this as a traumagenic society. That means that a society's policies, practices, and beliefs traumatize specific groups of people, for example on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. This can impact the physical and mental health, economic status, and well-being of entire groups. When this happens, membership in the group itself can come to predict a lack of well-being.
  • Healing

    Trauma-informed, or trauma-responsive systems, are ones that address the needs of trauma survivors through a deep understanding of how to recognize trauma and provide evidence-based/evidence-informed trauma treatment. Exposure to trauma and lack of treatment disproportionately impacts communities of color and those living in chronic poverty. There is a tremendous need in the field to increase access and racial equity in trauma treatment, shift systems such as the justice system to become trauma-informed, and address the root causes of violence and other traumatic events.
  • For example...

    The justice system is an example of a system that creates additional trauma for those who encounter it. Crime survivors are can be traumatized by an alienating and confusing legal process because they are blamed for their own victimization (women raped for wearing short skirts, black boys murdered for looking “scary”). Formerly incarcerated people return to the community traumatized by months, years, or decades living in a violent, terrifying, isolating, and degrading prison. The families of the incarcerated experience their own unique trauma as they are cut off from parents or other loved ones. Families can face stigma or may even lose jobs, friends, or family members as a result. Police officers, corrections officers, jurors, judges, and witnesses experience trauma. They encounter a steady stream of violence and pain. Police and corrections officers live in a constant state of fear for their lives. As with other trauma survivors, these experiences may manifest as aggression or other damaging behavior that feeds right back into the cycle of police and community violence.

Social and Historical Trauma

  • What it is

    Historical trauma is passed down through social, community-level, and familial narratives of the past. It impacts an individual’s understanding of their own victimization. Here, individual experiences symbolize larger social and historical harm. As a result, the outcome individual experiences become national barometers for social healing and social change.
  • What's the impact?

    Trauma that impacts the brain and behavior of adults can also be transferred from parent to child. This can occur through the ways in which parents bond with their children and impart their knowledge about the world. It can also happen through genes. Genes are actually influenced by environmental changes, known as the epigenome. This can hard-wire the brain to respond to stressful situations with heightened intensity. Epigenetic researchers are currently exploring the ways in which PTSD impacts genes, setting the foundation for understanding the transfer of intergenerational trauma.
  • Healing

    Social healing resides in the public square. It is enacted in the national dialogues, media attention, public rituals, and meaningful transformation in the aftermath of community-level trauma. Highly publicized events of national import can become potential symbols of historical harm. In the vacuum of other alternatives, punishing institutional leaders can become de facto symbols of social healing. While difficult to operationalize and measure, social healing is nonetheless an inexorable way in which trauma is healed.
  • For example...

     The Charleston shooting provides a powerful example. Dylan Roof confessed to shooting nine African American church members of Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. Following the tragedy, photos of Roof surfaced with the Confederate flag and a larger national debate about the Confederate flag re-surfaced. Once again, national conversations surged about the history of racism, white supremacy, and symbols of both in our institutions. Here, justice for the victims is not narrowly defined as punishment for the Roof's crime, but instead broadens to an acknowledgement of a culture that is complicit to symbols of bigotry. To be sure, the confederate flag has been a hotly contested symbol: over 75% of Southern African Americans believe the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism, while 75% of Southern White Americans see the flag as a symbol of history, culture, and tradition. In July of 2015, the South Carolina Senate voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.