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Talking about trauma

February 2, 2020  By Colleen Stevenson

As someone who specializes in trauma counselling, I have to admit I bristle every time I hear that word, or variations of it, dropped casually in conversation:

  • That six-hour flight delay was traumatizing!
  • The way that movie ended was traumatic!
  • He stopped returning my texts just out of the blue. It was traumatizing.

We are using that word to describe pretty much anything we don’t like — dead-end dates, horrible job interviews, failed grades, fights with roommates. We are using it to describe things that are really distressing, such as a sudden job loss, divorce, or a loved one dying. But distress and pain and sorrow are distinct from trauma.

An event is traumatic when:

  • It is abrupt, unexpected and overwhelming.
  • You believed that you or someone else would die or be severely hurt.
  • You had no choice.
  • You felt powerless.

An event is traumatic when your stress response skyrockets from zero to 100 and you struggle to calm yourself afterwards. Alternately, there can be many events that slowly raise your stress response over time and then keep it elevated.

Someone who has experienced trauma will struggle to make sense out of what has happened to them. The memories might be fragmented and jumbled with big gaps in the timeline. The memories might be distant and the person might feel like they happened to another person in a different time. Or, conversely, the memories might be vivid and crystal clear, bombarding the person randomly and without warning, so it is like the trauma is happening to them all over again.

I am describing a very specific type of event and, thankfully, not an everyday experience. These experiences are extremely costly to our physical bodies, our minds and our spirits.

We need to keep our language precise. It is the precision of language that gives it its power. When we overuse or inaccurately use a word, it dilutes it of its power.

There are people among us who have experienced trauma. Some research suggests that as many as 50 per cent of the population have experienced a traumatic event. Every time we toss out the word to describe something as commonplace as a delayed flight or failing grade (albeit disappointing), we are slowly sanding off the edges of a word that needs to have some punch to it. It is flippant and perhaps disrespectful to people who have actually endured extreme and traumatizing experiences to dilute the very terminology that can help them make sense of what they have experienced.

We don’t use other words haphazardly. The word rape, for example, has a very specific and ugly meaning, as does the word murder. It is reprehensible to use those words casually and inaccurately.

So why do we not take the same care with the word trauma?

I think it is time to pull back on the use of that word and use it with more care and consideration.

Colleen Stevenson is a registered clinical counsellor (RCC) based in Victoria, B.C. She has served as a trauma counsellor for inmates in a maximum-security jail and also as an educator across the globe. Reach her at

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