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Burke, Benjamin


Recently, I helped write a report for the Department of Defense on a phenomenon called Posttraumatic Growth (i.e., when people experience positive personal growth after experiencing a trauma). This project was a fascinating learning experience. Reading about the ways people can learn to triumph over adversity or grow in their perspectives and relationships was beautiful. However, before we could adequately discuss what it meant to grow from trauma, we needed to define trauma. I think this is an important experience to comprehend because misunderstandings could be harmful and hinder scientific or supportive efforts. In this editorial, I want to describe some different pitfalls that people can fall into when defining trauma and offer a framework that has helped me better understand the phenomenon. One pitfall is being flippant about the experience. We may use the word too casually, which could hurt or anger those who have gone through real trauma and are struggling with the aftermath. Another trap could be discrediting other people’s experiences, because they don’t match our definition of what qualifies. This is dangerous because people could have the signs and symptoms of trauma but feel invalidated and refuse to pursue needed supports out of shame. A final trap could be failing to recognize our own experiences of trauma. We may invalidate ourselves because we assume that a trauma has to be something “obvious,” like witnessing a natural disaster or going into combat. However, some estimates suggest that as many as 90% of individuals experience a trauma at some point in their lives (Kilpatrick et al., 2013)! Therefore, the definition likely goes beyond tornados and combat zones. These pitfalls, and others, beg the question: How do we appropriately define “trauma”? Though there is some disagreement among scholars, Calhoun and Tedeschi’s (2014) model of trauma has been helpful for me. They suggest that a trauma is any event that results in meaningful disruption in a person’s beliefs about life and the world, creates emotions that are challenging to deal with, and compromises their ability to manage those emotions. First, the event must be severe enough to challenge the person’s beliefs about life. All people have certain beliefs and assumptions about the world including things like relative goodness and predictability – trauma will challenge those beliefs, making it seem like the world is dangerous and out of control. Second, this challenge creates difficult emotions (stress, fear) as we struggle to adjust our beliefs about the world after trauma. Finally, these emotions can be so overwhelming, and our thoughts so disjointed, that the normal ways we’ve coped with challenges aren’t effective. This definition of trauma shifts the focus from the event itself to the effects that follow the event and provides helpful guidelines for understanding the experience. You may be asking yourself why it matters that we have an appropriate view of trauma? Research is not meant to stay within the walls of the laboratory and academia; it is meant to help us better understand life so we can better help those around us. Adopting this view of trauma has helped me grow as a researcher and as a person. I am more mindful about the language I use concerning trauma and better recognize the pitfalls surrounding the topic. I feel that I can better understand and relate to the people around me who have gone through profoundly difficult experiences and feel more empathy for them. It is my hope that this editorial, and Military REACH’s report on posttraumatic growth, will help you see trauma in a different way and be better equipped to understand yourself and others through challenges that will likely happen at some point across the lifespan.

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