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What is trauma?

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August 25, 2023

An overview of trauma and its impact on mental health and wellbeing

Trauma is something you hear lots of people talk about, but what does the term actually mean?

Part of the reason it’s hard to define is that trauma looks different for everyone. It can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, and everyone’s experience of trauma is different – as well as how they are affected by it.

As a broad definition, trauma is caused by an event, or series of events, situation or experience that we have no control over, and that is physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. An incident that takes us beyond our ability to cope, meaning we can’t function normally, leaving us feeling powerless.

How does trauma impact health and wellbeing?

Trauma is more than stress or mental distress. It can impact our mental, physical, social, emotional and spiritual health. Picture it as something with the potential to shake all four walls of Te Whare Tapa Whā, affecting all aspects of our health and wellbeing.

If someone has ongoing impacts from trauma and is not recovering, the negative impact on their life may lead to a diagnosed condition like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD are often similar to anxiety, including flashbacks, nightmares, being on high alert and avoidance behaviour.

However, it’s also important to know that experiencing trauma does not mean someone will definitely develop health or mental health challenges, and trauma doesn’t always have a long-lasting impact.

For those whose wellbeing is affected, support from whānau, friends, workmates and others can make a big difference. Strategies to manage wellbeing are also helpful, along with knowing when to get professional help. It is possible to experience trauma and live a good life.

Traumatic experiences

Trauma can be caused by a single event, an ongoing series of events, or a set of circumstances. The impact of ongoing traumatic experiences is very different from a single traumatic event.

Trauma can affect lots of people at once in a single incident, like an earthquake or terrorist attack; or only one person or a few people at a time, caused by things like violence in the home, sexual abuse, or surviving a car accident when others don’t.

A research survey of 1,500 New Zealand adults found over half had experienced a traumatic event. Women reported more exposure to crime and accident trauma than men. A separate study showed the numbers are higher for Māori, with 65 per cent having experienced one or more traumatic events during their lifetime.

Historical trauma

Another important type of trauma to be aware of is historical trauma. Refugees, migrants, and those whose countries were colonised can be affected as a collective group by historical trauma – that is trauma from historical events that started in the past.

The impact of traumatic events caused by the colonisation of indigenous people can be long-lasting, negatively affecting later generations. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this is the experience of many Māori people, both historically and today. The separation from and loss of land, silencing of te reo Māori and suppression of culture and cultural identity over generations has had a measurable impact on physical, social, spiritual, emotional, and economic wellbeing.

Today, Māori people are over-represented in poor health outcomes, family violence statistics (either as the person committing violence or the victim), imprisonment rates and high suicide statistics, all connected to the trauma of colonisation.

Recognising these impacts from historical trauma and building strong relationships that develop trust, along with supporting people to reconnect with their identity, language and culture, can be a start in supporting people affected by the historical trauma of colonisation.

Recovering from trauma

Most people do recover from experiencing trauma. It might just take a bit of time.

Everyone’s trauma recovery journey is unique, including how long it takes and what setbacks come up along the way. Reaching out to connect and ask for support from other people is an important part of recovery, even more so if they understand what trauma is and how to respond.

It’s also important to know when to reach out and ask for help. Advice and information from a trained mental health professional is sometimes needed to help personal recovery.

Learn more with MH101®

Blueprint for Learning’s MH101® workshop covers different aspects of trauma and its impact on mental health and wellbeing, including how to support someone who has experienced trauma.

Where to get help

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