Being exposed to a psychological trauma is a common experience in the life of an American: roughly 25 – 50% of all Americans (around 74 million to 148 million people) will be exposed to a psychological trauma at some point within their lives (Bremner, 2002). However, what exactly is meant by this term? What is a psychological trauma?

A basic definition of trauma is being in a situation in which one is exposed to great danger and is rendered powerless . This great danger can be due to natural or man-made forces. Examples of natural disasters are hurricanes, floods, forest fires, etc… while examples of man-made disasters are car accidents, war, violent crime, or abusive interpersonal relationships, etc…. Being rendered powerless can apply to one’s physical or psychological power. One way of lacking physical power is when one is incapable of fighting back or fleeing the situation, while another way to lack physical power occurs when the body, in an attempt to protect itself, freezes, making physical movement impossible. If choosing to engage in a physical response places one in more or different physical danger, then one is also physically powerless. For example if the only way out of a burning car is to break through the front window, the physical danger of this plan renders this method of escape implausible. Becoming psychologically powerless can occur when an individual is stripped of his or her individuality and humanity: “[T]he individual does not feel like a valuable person with the right to safety, happiness, and health. At that moment, one is more like a thing, a vulnerable object subject to the will of a power or force greater than oneself” (Matsakis, 1994, p. 29). Entrapment also destroys psychological power and arises when every potential means of escape or protection is too dangerous, risky or too costly, either morally, emotionally, economically, spiritually, etc….

Some events will be traumatic for any and every human being while others will be traumatic for some but not for all. The meaning the event has for the individual experiencing it as well as her or his cultural and spiritual beliefs factor into whether the event is experienced as traumatic. The length of time that one is exposed to the event does not necessarily dictate whether or not it is traumatic or how the individual will react.

Events that occur after the initial traumatic event can be just as traumatizing or even more so. These events are called secondary wounding experiences. Common secondary wounding experiences are the reactions of loved ones or societal systems that are in-place to help the victim. For example imagine that a concert violinist survived a severe car accident and was told in the hospital that three of her fingers would be amputated. The violinist responds to this news with significant emotional distress and is told by a, well-meaning, nurse to be grateful since several of the other victims had it worse. For the violinist these supposed words of encouragement do just the opposite and minimize what for her, given her profession and passion, is a life-altering and potentially traumatizing event.

To summarize, an event is traumatic when in the face of severe danger, “action is of no avail [and] when neither resistance nor escape is possible” (Herman, 1997, p. 34). Whether an event is experienced as traumatic demands only in part on the life history and coping skills an individual brings to the dangerous situation. It is imperative to remember that certain events will be experienced as traumatic for any and every individual who experiences it. Most importantly, experiencing a traumatic event has nothing to do with weakness and is never the fault of the individual who has to live through and learn to heal from the experience. I hope this article helped you gain an understanding of what psychological trauma is. If reading this material stirred up painful memories or difficult emotions, please use healthy means to calm this pain. If you have experienced a traumatic event in your life and would like to work with a professional to help you heal from this experience. Reach out to a licensed, trained and competent therapist in your community.

If you would like to contact Dr. Dillmann, please visit her website at for contact information. This article does not provide or constitute psychological services.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Dillmann works with individual adults to improve their emotional lives, find peace from painful memories/experiences and develop skills for healthy living. Dr. Dillmann has focused much of her work on helping adults come to terms with and heal from traumatic events, both past and recently experienced events. For more information on Dr. Dillmann, please visit her website at