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What is Trauma, really? Have you experienced it?

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

The word has been overused in popular culture and discourse, often losing its meaning and potency. It's important that we get clear on what trauma is and what it's not, so that people who have been affected can get the right kind of support.

Psychologists' definition of trauma usually involves the following components. Trauma is:

  • an emotional, psychological, or physiological response

  • to an event or series of events

  • that are deeply distressing, shocking, or overwhelming (or out of the ordinary)

  • These events can be experienced directly or indirectly

  • and they involve a threat to a person's life or safety.

Let's look at each of these components:

1. An emotional, psychological, or physiological response

It is a response to an event, meaning that the same event may be traumatic to one person but not to another, since different people can respond to events differently.

2. To an event or series of events

It could be a single isolated event (e.g. sexual assault) or a set of events (e.g. war).

3. That are deeply distressing, shocking, or overwhelming (or out of the ordinary)

The "out of the ordinary" point is quite important since an event that seems a regular part of life can also be traumatic if it occurs outside the realm of what is considered typical at a point of time/ in society (e.g. the response to the death of a parent when they are 95 years old would be considered grief, not trauma, but it may be trauma if the parent died at a much younger age or if they died by violent means).

4. These events can be experienced directly or indirectly

A person can also experience Trauma indirectly i.e. when observing an event happening to a person they care about.

5. And they involve a threat to a person's life or safety

This is an aspect we often overlook when we talk about trauma in a casual way. People who have been affected by trauma have been through something where they felt their life or safety (or the life/ safety of a loved one) was in danger. This distinguishes traumatic events from other events that may be painful, no doubt, but require other kinds of support.

How can we support a loved one who has been through Trauma?

Here are 5 ways we can support someone who has experienced trauma, according to Psychologists:

  1. Active listening: Just be present, showing warmth and non-judgement, giving them space to talk without imposing your own opinions.

  2. Psychoeducation: Empower them with the right information by sharing any books or resources that talk about how to deal with trauma. (E.g. The Body Keeps The Score - Bessel van der Kolk)

  3. Encourage self-care: Encourage them to prioritize self-care, including engaging in healthy activities such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule. This can help promote physical and mental well-being, as well as increase resilience to cope with the trauma.

  4. Help with seeking professional help: If their symptoms persist or worsen, encourage them to seek professional help from a mental health professional trained in trauma-informed care. This might include counseling, therapy, or psychiatric treatment, depending on their needs.

  5. Establish a support network: Encourage them to connect with others who have experienced similar traumas or to join support groups where they can share their experiences and learn from others in a safe, validating environment.

Remember that trauma-related disorders (e.g. PTSD) are serious conditions and you don't need to put a timeline on recovery. Take it one day at a time, and with the right support, life can grow around it.

Note: These are only a few first steps based on research, and I hope they have been meaningful to you. For more customised and detailed support, I would recommend personal therapy.

About the Author

Diya John is a counselor and psychotherapist with a Masters in Psychology and a Diploma in Counselling from Australia. She founded Therapy Garden to make evidence-based counseling more accessible to expatriates, immigrants and the international community. She is based in Japan, but works with clients in different parts of the world via online therapy. Read more about her areas of specialisation and services here.

You may also be interested in:


  • Briere, J., & Scott, C. (2014). Principles of Trauma Therapy: A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

  • Shapiro, F., & Forrest, M. S. (2016). EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma. New York, NY: Basic Books.

  • van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Viking.



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