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A mental, emotional, and physical response to an adverse experience.

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Trauma is becoming a buzzword, but what does it mean? In this article, we’ll explore the spectrum of trauma and discuss how it relates to survivors of cancer and other rare diseases. We will also explore psychological or mind-based therapies for healing trauma as well as body-based therapies. 

Though we don’t have diagnoses or firm understandings of all of the different kinds of trauma, we are beginning to understand that trauma exists on a spectrum. Not all traumatic events lead to diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder, something we’ll explore in more depth later on. However, a person doesn’t need to have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder to acknowledge or begin healing from their trauma. There are many working definitions of trauma. We’ll explore some of them throughout this article. 

The degree of trauma is dictated by the intensity of the traumatic event, the way the person experiences it, and the way the person processes it after the event has passed. 

Below is an example of the spectrum of traumatic experiences and reactions a person may have with a cancer diagnosis.

Small reaction: An uncomfortable procedure such as a biopsy that makes a person cringe to think about going through again. Mid reaction: Restlessness, anxiety, and sleeplessness in the days leading up to a PET scan. Big reaction: Anxiety or depression that are present most of the time. They impact the person’s life and their ability to go places and do things. Physical symptoms such as racing heart and an upset stomach may also be present. Nightmares and flashbacks are common.

Traumatic Events or Reactions?

Traumatic events are the times when strong emotions cause physical reactions within us to keep us safe - the flight, fight, or freeze response. Examples include increased heart rate, blood shifting from internal organs to muscles- a response that prepares the body to run away from danger, but can leave a person unable to think clearly, digest food, or rest and heal.

Not all traumatic events lead to traumatic reactions, even though it would sometimes be healthier for us in the long run if they did. 

It sometimes becomes second nature to interrupt our body's natural fear process by forcing ourselves to calm down. When the body isn’t allowed to experience fear or trauma, it becomes stored in the body in unhealthy ways, such as tension, pain, and anxiety. 

Later on, any sensations that we associate with certain traumatic events can lead to traumatic reactions. Traumatic reactions are when we respond out of proportion to the present because of the past.

For example, our first experience receiving vaccinations as children can often be a traumatic event because of the needle poke. The traumatic reaction could range from slight trembling, to collapsing, or needing restraints when needles are involved even into adulthood.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. [Mental health professionals] can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”

Here are some common types of trauma that are experienced by people all over the world.

  • Title
    Acute or Obvious Trauma
    • Specific events or situations.
    • Your brush with death happened, and you weren’t sure your life would be the same again.
    • Examples include violence, a natural disaster, or failing infrastructure like a bridge collapse.
  • Title
    Complex or less obvious Trauma
    • Seemingly smaller or less obvious, but stressful situations happening over time.
    • This type of trauma can be easy to deny, or ignore, which is why it can build over time.
    • Living with routinely elevated levels of stress related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
    • Common examples are abuse, discrimination, pandemics, and generational trauma.
  • Title
    Medical Trauma
    • Medical trauma refers to the specific traumatic experience of a difficult encounter with the health care system. It may also be due to repeated or prolonged need for care.
    • Typically, the trauma comes from a lack of  privacy, control, or sense of security. Individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer, hematologic, metabolic, or genetic disorders may experience trauma. 
    • People who identify as a gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity that isn’t the majority may also experience trauma in the health care system if they are treated differently or misunderstood by their health care team. 
    • A common and normal traumatic reaction may occur on the anniversary of when you were diagnosed, or upon visiting where you were hospitalized for a check-up.
  • Title
    Vicarious trauma
    • This describes a reaction that happens when we are repeatedly engaging with the trauma of other people - whether that’s as a caregiver, an emergency responder, or a trauma mental health professional.
    • Vicarious traumatic reactions can be good, neutral, or bad depending on the length, and depth of engagement, and the results range from burnout to increased resiliency.
  • Title
    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
    • PTSD is the only trauma-related diagnosis mental health professionals currently have. It is a diagnosis given to people who experienced a traumatic event and continue to relive it, consciously or subconsciously. For example, through anxiety, flashbacks, avoidance, and nightmares.
    • The Anxiety & Depression Association of America provides a good definition to distinguish. "A traumatic event is time-based, while PTSD is a longer-term condition where one continues to have flashbacks and re-experiencing the traumatic event. In addition, to meet criteria for PTSD there must be a high level of ongoing distress and life impairment."

Therapies for Trauma Healing 

Just as everyone experiences trauma differently, everyone has different needs for healing from trauma. Unfortunately, healing from trauma is often a spiral process. Sometimes, a person may think they have processed their trauma and healed from it, only to have it bubble back up years later when something reminds the deepest part of their brain of the traumatic event. The brain then sounds the alarms that danger may be near. Learn more about Practices to Help Cope.

Expert Sources

We'd like to thank the following contributors for their expertise and editing of this information.

  • Maureen Anderson, DNP, RN
  • Allison Breininger, MAEd, Family Caregiver
  • Vanessa Hausman, MSW, LICSW
  • Jane McCampbell, M.A., LMFT, CPCC, RMFT: Trauma Therapist and Coach
  • Megan Voss, DNP, RN
  • Sara Werner, MA, LP, RPT-S, SEP 

Writing: Jacques Lerouge and Megan Voss

Design: Samuel Fedderly and Alissa Platzer

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