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Definitions of trauma

Definitions of trauma

A critically important place to start in such a topic is defining what we are talking about and creating shared understandings.

In trauma, this is especially the case because the word is used in so many settings. Many people use the word trauma in different settings to describe different concepts.

Defining trauma

Probably the most widely accepted definition nowadays comes from the American Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) which describes individual trauma as an event or circumstance resulting in:

Physical harm, emotional harm and/or life-threatening harm. [Importantly] the event or circumstance has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s mental, physical and emotional health, social well-being and/or spiritual well-being.
-SAMHSA, (2022).

Trauma as a continuum

Of course, like most aspects of humanity, trauma exists on and can be described along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is what some people might experience as discomfort. At the other end of the spectrum is a range of ‘symptoms’ or consequences ranging from paralysis through ongoing trauma-induced states, severe physical consequences and ultimately death (some through suicide).

Trauma, shame and self-insight

On the other hand, for some people, some experience of trauma can lead to greater self-insight. This is certainly the case when it comes to shame (something we will explore later). Shame is conceptualised as an evolutionary set of behaviours designed to help us remain part of the tribe when this was key to our survival. Today, some mild shame can help us learn important lessons, but a lot of the shame we feel, or are made to feel, can be toxic and undermine our wellbeing in ways strongly linked to trauma.

Watch the video and reflect

We asked some of our experts for their thoughts on how they’d describe trauma. Here, Dr Chris Kozar, Prof Gery Karantzas, and Assoc Prof Liz Temple share their thoughts on the key features of trauma.

What were the common themes that were reflected in each video snippet from Chris, Gery, and Liz? Share your observations in the comments.


Huang, L.N., Flatow, R., Biggs, T., Afayee, S., Smith, K., Clark, T. and Blake, M., 2014. SAMHSA’s Concept of Truama and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.

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Trauma, Neuro, and Shame Awareness: Best Practice for Professionals, Organisations, and Communities

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