The 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found that over 50% of the population of the United States has suffered at least one adverse traumatic event in their childhood.
An adverse childhood experience is any of the ten identified early traumatic experiences which the ACE study found can lead to long term health problems in adulthood. The categories include abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, parental incarceration, witnessing violence in the household and family history of mental health or substance abuse struggles.
Trauma as a Spectrum
The human experience of trauma goes even deeper, though. Mental health experts now view trauma as a spectrum of experience. “Big T” traumas are experiences that are severe or life-altering that can lead to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Examples include war, physical and/or sexual violence, natural disasters, and serious accidents. “Little t” traumas are experiences that do not meet the criteria for PTSD, however, are still emotionally disturbing and upsetting to a person. Examples include bullying, harassment, loss of significant relationships, and emotional abuse. Research has shown that over time exposure to repeated “little t” traumas can have the same emotional harm as a “Big T” experience. To be human means that we are susceptible to trauma because we all experience loss. Loss can come in many forms including loss of a job, a friendship, a relationship, a pet, a place to live, death of a loved one, etc. Some losses are more difficult to overcome than others, but they still represent a form of trauma in that they can be disturbing, unsettling, and cause an adjustment to a “new” normal. It is important to understand that the human experience of trauma, whether Big T or little t, does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, education level, etc.
Much of the behavior that we see in others that we find off-putting or difficult to deal with can generally be linked directly back to their experiences of trauma in one way or another. For example, If someone was used to being bullied as a child they may begin to view others as unsafe and threatening, which may make them more likely to treat others with cold aloofness as a protective measure. Being trauma-informed asks “what happened to you” instead of “what’s wrong with you.” What if we began to view each other through the lens of our traumatic experiences? Would we be more compassionate, kind, patient, and gentle? Possibly. In a time where Covid has created a mental health crisis unlike any, we have ever seen, it’s worth at least examining.
The literature around Trauma-Informed Care suggests that in order to be trauma-informed we must, as a collective:
Realize the prevalence of trauma in our communities
Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in others
Respond with appropriate societal policies and procedures
Resist re-traumatizing individuals
In future posts, I will expand upon these four distinctions. In addition, I will lay out why having a conversation about race is essential to creating trauma-informed change. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! What questions does this bring up for you? How does this concept resonate?
Reach out anytime to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. (1998). American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 14, 245–258
What is Trauma-Informed Care? Trauma Informed Oregon. Retrieved from: https://traumainformedoregon.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/What-is-Trauma-Informed-Care.pdf