Are You Misusing the Term "Trauma"?
6 questions to determine if you're using the term correctly.
Posted January 10, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
“Words matter because clarity in words is a part of clarity in thinking, and because some words carry great emotional and symbolic weight, and thus should be not used lightly.” —Jeffrie G. Murphy
Over the past several decades, there has been more awareness of the prevalence of psychological trauma and how this never-ending pandemic has impacted individuals, generations of families, and communities. Unfortunately, this awareness has caused trauma to become a buzzword used too often and incorrectly. Some people use the word trauma to describe anything shocking, distressing, or even slightly uncomfortable.
There are legitimate reasons why trauma has become a buzzword. Many people have felt unseen, unheard, misunderstood, invalidated, and judged in relation to their emotional struggles. Trauma is a weighted word that can quickly describe the severity of an experience to those who may not otherwise understand it. It might not be enough to say, “I’m struggling.” The phrase, “I’m traumatized,” has a greater chance of being heard. Simply put, the word carries a weight that cannot be ignored.
To determine if you are misusing the term, ask yourself these questions:
1. Am I using the word trauma to describe an event or experience?
One of the biggest mistakes people make when using the word trauma is focusing solely on an event. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.” This definition focuses on the events and the impacts or injuries caused by the event. Many people have had horrific experiences but do not develop trauma. Therefore, you cannot use the word trauma to describe an event or a range of experiences solely; you must also consider the impacts and injuries or lack thereof.
2. Am I using the word trauma to describe recent psychological injuries?
Psychological injuries caused by trauma are expected during the first month or so after a distressing event has occurred. Think of the grieving process: When you experience a loss, it's not uncommon to experience anger, denial, and sadness. You might also notice a lack of appetite, fatigue, social isolation, distractibility, and sleep disturbance. These can be signs of healthy emotional processing, which will lessen over time. If they do not, you might be experiencing complicated grief or a major depressive episode. When you experience psychological injuries after a disturbing event, you might automatically engage in healthy emotional processing, which may decrease over time. If your injuries are temporary, you can call them distressing. If your injuries stick around for months, you might begin to use the word trauma.
3. Am I using the word trauma to describe a distressing experience or a disordered experience?
There is a vast difference between being distressed and being disordered. Distress is usually a temporary experience in which your mind and body return to a state of safety and emotional regulation. Disordered tends to be prolonged and impact many aspects of your life, such as your sense of safety, self-worth, emotional regulation, and ability to engage in relationships. Trauma is disordered.
If you’re not sure if your injuries are disordered, try replacing the word trauma with "distressing,” “hurt,” or “impacted." For example, “The car accident was distressing"; “My childhood had a strong negative impact on me"; "Your text hurt me.”
You can also focus on your injuries and the event(s) you experienced, which may provide more clarity. For example, “Since the car accident, I feel afraid when I drive, and I can’t sleep" or “My childhood caused me to feel as if I can’t trust people, and I struggle to feel connected in my relationships.”
4. Am I using the words trauma and PTSD interchangeably?
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder assigned to trauma survivors who meet specific criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition Text Revision (DSM-5-TR). PTSD is not a definition of trauma nor a reliable or accurate way to determine if one has experienced trauma. Many trauma survivors do not qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD. Here’s a simple equation to remember: A diagnosis of PTSD always equals trauma, but trauma does not always equal PTSD.
5. Am I discussing someone else’s trauma?
Sometimes you might find yourself referring to trauma that is not your own. You may say, “His trauma was triggered,” or “She’s traumatized.” If you are not a mental health professional or the trauma survivor, be hesitant about labeling others' experiences. Ensure that the survivor has informed you that they consider their experiences and injuries traumatic and permit you to use the word to describe their experiences. If you are a trauma survivor, remember that your experiences of trauma can be very different from others. No two survivors have the same injuries. Do not assume that your trauma gives you the authority to determine if another is also a trauma survivor.
6. I’m a trauma survivor. Am I using self-identifying words that feel right to me?
If you are a trauma survivor, find the most accurate words to describe yourself. There is no right or wrong phrase or label; it’s about what fits you best. You might use the word trauma, or you might not. Consider these descriptors.
- Trauma Survivor/Survivor of Trauma. (Some survivors prefer to be specific, such as: Incest Survivor, Sexual Assault Survivor, Child Abuse Survivor, Adult Survivor of Child Abuse, or Complex Trauma Survivor).
- Trauma Victim/Victim of Trauma
- Veteran, Prisoner of War (POW), Wounded Warrior
- Trauma Advocate
Words have power. Knowing how to use powerful words such as trauma is essential. Your correct use of these terms can encourage others to do the same.
“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. Accessed November 26, 2022. https://dictionary.apa.org/trauma.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition Text Revision: DSM-5-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2022.