The Ubiquity of Trauma and the Role of Community Healing

4 min read

In the last decade, popular and clinical understandings of trauma have magnified. People are thinking about how their life experiences have affected them. We are talking about things that were once left unsaid. People are left less alone in their struggles. This is good.

What Does It Mean to Have Trauma

These last few years, I have heard the phrase have trauma repeatedly. “I have trauma,” a friend might say. Or, “I’m going to be careful with getting into a relationship with anyone who has trauma for a while. My visual mind creates an image of something the person is carrying. I feel empathy.

As a therapist, I walk with respect most days, listening to tales of grief, relationship struggles, mental illness, assaults of all kinds, addiction, and what seems to be an endless list of trials in life. I am honestly bewildered by the level of resilience among humans. As I wade through the grocery store, I wonder to myself. How many people around me are fighting or know someone fighting cancer? Who has lost someone they love? Who here has been deployed to a warzone?

Is anyone free of trauma? The traumas in life touch us all.

Most of us love, and for most, at some point or another, we mourn. It’s better to grieve than to have never known someone. It is meaningful. Life is beautiful. And the shadows of good things and people lost pierce. I believe pain will overwhelm all of us at one point or another.

Of course, trauma is not just an event. It’s also an injury. Definitions of trauma vary. The one I’ve found most helpful for trauma is the sharpest of injuries making a lasting mark on our physical, social, and psychological integrity. In time, often, that injury heals.

What Does It Mean to Have PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a particular pattern of traumatic responses characterized by re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of it, finding ourselves trapped in hypervigilance, and being sensitized to any reminder of what happened. It’s when our mind and body’s healing processes become stuck, spinning us over the same event.

PTSD is not in any way a weakness. It’s a condition. Often, recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder requires outside help, sometimes psychotherapy to free the mind to continue to process what occurred. The traumatic events that qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD within the DSM-V must meet the criterion-A definition of one that is life-threatening, causes serious harm, or involves a sexual assault.

Many events that might not qualify for this DSM-V criterion are traumatic and can sometimes produce these symptoms. The criteria are somewhat controversial.

A Community Approach to Trauma

With the ubiquity of trauma, how do communities process trauma? Within many cultures, healing is a community event involving room for connection, the telling of stories, and support. Stereotypical American culture has a more individualistic approach.

Spaces do exist where stories are told. Still, as a whole, it could be argued that as a culture, we have little in the way of structured community support for the traumas of every day. More and more, I hear terms such as trauma dumping and the encouragement of psychotherapy as the place to take our trauma.

As a therapist, I am, of course, in favor of psychotherapy as a trauma-processing tool, particularly in the case of PTSD. Evidence-based practices such as eye movement desensitization therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and others can provide a life-changing means for working through the tangles left in the aftermath of a traumatic event. These therapies revive our natural ability to recover and facilitate post-traumatic growth.

Community connectedness is also a piece of healing (Schultz and colleagues, 2016). Storytelling has been employed in many cultures, including some indigenous ones (Corntassel, 2009), for the collective processing of shared traumas. Many have also found story-sharing within families meaningful to process experiences (Kiser and colleagues, 2010).

Unfortunately, few Americans are offered these community-based approaches.

When families or communities suffer trauma, everyone is affected. Yet, often, only a few receive care, typically within an individualized setting. What would happen if we could habitually offer support to each other, and offer a shared environment for healing? Could cycles of trauma be prevented?

Closing

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that often benefits from psychotherapy. Other types of trauma responses can also benefit. While not everyone has PTSD, most people experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. One could ask what role community may play in our collective healing.

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