The Problem With The Word “Trauma” Today

Anu Venkatesh

How did the word trauma go from practically nonexistent to the most used word of the last decade? 

Before the two world wars, trauma was rarely spoken about, nor acknowledged. However, during these wars, many soldiers suffered from what was called “shell-shock,” which was basically a different term for trauma. Originally, these soldiers were given treatment as well as disability pensions, but later, it was seen as a character defect, a sign of an unwilling, cowardly soldier. 

After the wars, around 1970, interest in trauma escalated quickly in the general public. Many veterans of war were being diagnosed with PTSD — post traumatic stress disorder — and soon, it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, or DSM for short. This ‘manual’ is what psychiatrists use to identify and diagnose mental illnesses. According to the DSM definition, trauma is “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

Over the next fifteen years, serious alterations were made to the DSM; these changes placed more weightage on the person’s level of distress, rather than the severity of the actual event. Soon, people who may have just heard about a traumatic event and not even directly involved, were being diagnosed with PTSD. 

Following the civil rights movement, “trauma” expanded to describe many events, such as child abuse and racial injustices. And then, finally, in the 1990’s terms like “cultural trauma,” “collective trauma,” and “historical trauma” were becoming widespread and popular. 

However, currently, in our decade, trauma has become the most used word. In fact, it has been recorded that more than 5,500 podcasts have trauma in the title. On TikTok, #trauma has over 6.2 billion views. 

Even though trauma is real and can have everlasting effects, the problem with simply throwing the term around is that it ultimately loses its meaning. Saying that someone has been through a traumatic event has become similar to how one may say that they are addicted to cake; trauma has just become a popular word, being used without any actual meaning.

Sentences like “I still have PTSD from playing soccer in seventh grade,” or “We spilled the substance in the lab; it was so traumatic” are used frequently and majorly misuse the true meaning of trauma and PTSD.  

When a certain artist accused Taylor Swift of not writing her own songs, it is suddenly “damaging,” not just to her personally, but to the culture as a whole. Instead of just being an uncomfortable experience, a store having sugar-free options sends “harmful messages” to Demi Levato, labeling them as a victim of the culture. 

There are disorders and situations where use of this extreme language is necessary, but if these words are being used everywhere, for every small thing, is the language even extreme anymore? If everyone has trauma, does anyone, really? 

People can go through hard situations where there may be consequences without it being immediately classified as trauma. The current, vague definition of trauma is harming society by claiming that a misrepresentation of trauma is true. A certain traumatic event may not be traumatizing to everyone; saying that we are all suffering from “mass-trauma” because of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing is not true. 

Situations can be hard, situations can be uncomfortable, situations can be filled with uncertainty,but that does not immediately mean that something is traumatic. 

As years have gone by, has society’s tolerance for difficult situations decreased, labeling every small inconvenience as traumatic? Restricting the definition of trauma does not take away from a person’s horrible experience, the past horrors of our history, or the difficult experiences certain people face on a daily basis; it does not limit our ability to empathize with others; and it does not take away from the time needed to recover from tragedy or difficult challenges. It helps us, as a community, realize that we can go through tough situations with hard consequences without it necessarily being considered trauma.

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