STRONGER TOGETHER: The Power of Words in Understanding and Addressing Trauma

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Last updated: 23/10/2023

"STRONGER TOGETHER" is a weekly column where Tanya explores key issues. This week Tanya discusses the complex and sensitive subject of trauma.

By IMPACT Community Services Managing Director Tanya O'Shea

Tanya O'Shea, IMPACT Community Services Managing Director

“Words matter because clarity in words is a part of clarity in thinking, and because some words carry great emotional and symbolic weight, and thus should be not used lightly.” —Jeffrie G. Murphy

These words resonate deeply in today's context with increasing awareness around the importance of mental well-being, specifically regarding psychological trauma and the devastating impact that it can have on individuals, families and even communities.

Almost daily we hear people referring to trauma, sometimes even using it to label or explain another person’s experience. Let’s call this out early: unless you are a mental health professional or have lived experience, we should not label other people’s experiences. One person's experience of trauma can vastly differ from another's.

It is easy to understand why trauma has become somewhat of a catchphrase today. For too long, people have struggled to share their experience, perhaps even feeling misunderstood, unheard, or invalidated when speaking up or sharing openly that they are not coping. Sharing that you or someone you know is traumatised however, is not as easy to ignore.

Sometimes we feel stuck, uncertain if what we have gone through, or are going through, is trauma. It is a loaded word, often used to explain the discomfort or pain that we are experiencing. And sometimes, it is even used to justify poor behaviour that has resulted in a negative impact or outcome. 

Trauma is an ever-evolving field, and this article has a limited word count so let’s keep things super simple. Trauma literally means ‘wound, injury or shock’ and is the emotional, psychological, and physiological residue resulting from a stressful event.

Simple trauma is often overwhelming and painful, and rarely would anyone who has experienced simple trauma, refer to it as ‘simple.’ It is often a single event, something that may be life-threatening or cause serious injury, and may include things like natural disasters, car accidents or being the victim of a crime such as a rape or home invasion.

In comparison, complex trauma goes beyond a one-off incident and generally includes multiple incidents over a longer duration. Complex trauma tends to be repeated, may be difficult or impossible to escape from, may occur within a personal relationship or may begin as early as childhood, and can be something that an individual carries with them through to adulthood. People who experience complex trauma often feel disconnected from the support of others.

Even though simple and complex trauma are similar in many ways, they have some important differences. One thing to highlight is the element of shame and secrecy that often accompanies complex trauma. Simple trauma is usually validated, sometimes through acknowledgement, media coverage or recognition from family, friends, law enforcement or other societal systems.

In comparison, complex trauma is ongoing, with very little opportunity to recover before the pattern is repeated. It often occurs in secrecy and may be accompanied by threats and behaviours that compromise the safety of individuals or others within their family.

Irrespective of the type of trauma, unresolved symptoms such as anxiety, sleep problems, low energy, fatigue or an overreliance on drugs and alcohol will have an adverse effect on an individual’s mental and physical health and wellbeing. As a community we therefore have a responsibility not to offer responses that are unhelpful, judge or blame victims as this further disempowers them and leaves them a target of ongoing threats, violation, or violence. 

Trauma, and the reactions of others, can have lasting effects on a person's mental and physical health. However, it doesn't have to shape their future. Trauma can be treated, and if you or someone you know can relate to the content here, it is important to seek support. With the right support and guidance, the challenges of trauma can be overcome.

If you would like more information about trauma, jump on and check out the resources at blue knot: https://blueknot.org.au/resources/blue-knot-fact-sheets/talking-about-trauma/

Please note: This website may contain references to, or feature images, videos, and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have passed away.

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