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What’s the Difference Between Hurt and Trauma? (Part I)

Rachel Alexander Oct. 31, 2019

{4 minutes to read}  What’s the difference between hurt and trauma and why do divorcing parents need to know?

Hurt happens. Trauma may be preventable.

In divorcing situations, some pain may be inevitable, but trauma is preventable! In a divorce, parents lose their tempers, over-share information, pick up the pieces from the damage of the other parent’s lost temper or over-sharing, and so on. Children are exposed to much from which, under preferrable circumstances, they would otherwise have been shielded.

While we all strive to abide by the Hippocratic Oath — to at least, do no harm — it turns out that we tend to harm one another quite a lot, particularly those we love the most.

This article addresses what can be done to prevent hurt from becoming trauma — who and how we can be in order to stand between the aftermath of upset and the hardening of injury into long-term damage.

What Is the Difference Between Hurt and Trauma?

Trauma can be defined as an experience that overwhelms an individual’s coping mechanisms. As each of us is equipped differently, what may be traumatic for one, may leave another unscathed. This definition doesn’t categorize certain events — rape, physical violence, natural disaster — as traumatic, nor does it argue that other seemingly more innocuous happenings can’t possibly result in trauma. Instead, our definition is individual-centered, distinguished not by the event alone, but by how the victim is impacted by and resourced to cope with it.

If properly tended to, an injury typically does not become a trauma. A trauma is something from which a person does not automatically recover — it cements in the system and tends to repeat itself. Trauma stays in the body and psyche, replaying in the present, distorting reality. Trauma makes otherwise neutral stimuli appear threatening. Trauma casts dissimilar events as repetitions of the traumatic experience or irresistible opportunities to resolve the unsettled trauma. Trauma is something that sticks around until it gets what it needs to be transformed.

And here we’re defining trauma as a kind of stuck, incomplete occurrence. Something that can be re-triggered. 

Why can’t you just “let it go?”

The directive, “let it go” to a person in the grips of trauma is akin to instructing a choking person to let go of the crusty bread lodged in his windpipe, or someone with cancer to let go of the malignant cells. Trauma is not something people hold onto wistfully, like colored balloons — its something lodged in their throats, lymph nodes, cells.

Trauma sticks around because it has no other choice — it requires outside help in order to be dislodged. It didn’t get what it needed and needs something further now in order to properly resolve. 

In fact, the formula of many haunting horror movies follow an arc similar to that of trauma. Something unseeable, visible only by its effect, makes itself known in strange, frightening ways, and causes enough disruption that it demands attention. Eventually, it is identified. The protagonist relates to it in a particular way — often with a moving toward it, listening to its story, usually comprised of some injury suffered that never received proper attention or closure. And through this attention, through this contact, the protagonist helps the spirit to transition — to be free. The result is reciprocal — the protagonist and whomever else was terrorized by the unearthly presence, is also restored, whole.

In order to address trauma, we have to become our own ghost-listeners — hear a wordless language, attend kindly to the elusive, unformed, unmapped. Turn towards that which we are afraid to confront. 

In part two of this series, we take on how to do this.