The word “trauma” is used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless. Trauma has sometimes been defined in reference to circumstances that are outside the realm of normal human experience. Unfortunately, this definition doesn’t always hold true. For some groups of people, trauma can occur frequently and become part of the common human experience.

In addition to terrifying events such as violence and assault, we suggest that relatively more subtle and insidious forms of trauma—such as discrimination, racism, oppression, and poverty—are pervasive and, when experienced chronically, have a cumulative impact that can be fundamentally life-altering.

Particular forms of trauma, such as intentional violence and/or witnessing violence, sustained discrimination, poverty, and ensuing chaotic life conditions are directly related to chronic fear and anxiety, with serious long-term effects on health and other life outcomes.

Trauma Theory

“Trauma theory” is a relatively recent concept that emerged in the health care environment during the 1970s, mostly in connection with studies of Vietnam veterans and other survivor groups (Holocaust survivors, abused women and children, disaster survivors, refugees, victims of sexual assault) (see “Post-traumatic stress disorder” was added as a new category in the American Psychiatric Association official manual of mental disorders in 1980.

Trauma theory represents a fundamental shift in thinking from the idea that those who have experienced psychological trauma are either “sick” or deficient in moral character to the reframe that they are “injured” and in need of healing.


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