Often times when we think of trauma, we think of horrific events that happen to a person or to a group of people. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administrations (SAMHSA) define trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Things like a natural disaster, war, rape, or a horrific accident. These types of incidents are what I like to call “Big Trauma”. Their impact is shocking and life changing in many cases. And then there are “Little Traumas” that are no less significant than larger scale events and these can include loss of a relationship or job, a medical illness, loss or change in identity, acts of prejudice, and other types of events that require adjustment or transition.
“Little traumas” can also compound pre-existing trauma resulting in secondary trauma. Media is a major contributor to secondary trauma because of the prolific generation of information and images of tragic events happening across the world. For example, sexual assault survivors exposed to hundreds of stories and images of sexual assault become stressed as it may activate their own memories of previous assaults, sending them on a roller coaster of emotion and pain. Others exposed to these stories may have an epiphany of sorts – that something happened to them in the past they now have a name for or are just discovering how deeply a previous assault has affected them and their relationships.
Interpersonal violence and tragic events of any kind lead to deep and lasting wounds. It changes a person and it changes the way a person processes the world. For many, the world is no longer a safe place. It is very likely that you know someone who is a survivor of sexual violence. In fact, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime and it is highly likely they will be assaulted or harassed by someone they know (NSVRC). Sixty-one percent of men and 51% of women have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life time (SAMHSA). The odds that you know someone who has gone through something traumatic in their lives is even greater.
We can improve healing by helping survivors feel heard, understood, and believed. If you have been personally affected by trauma, healing is possible, whether the event happened recently or many years ago. Reach out for help. If you think you are experiencing secondary trauma due to media coverage, it is okay to pull away and engage less with social media and TV. If you have a loved one or a friend who is struggling with trauma, support them. Be sure to listen attentively – listen to the feelings your friend or relative is trying to convey. Offer encouragement for the person to seek counseling and to get well. Extend your emotional support, patience and understanding.
Whether you have experienced a “Big Trauma” or “Little Trauma,” all trauma has lasting effects and we are here for you.