Useful Concepts in Trauma: A Glossary Skip to main content
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Useful Concepts in Trauma: A Glossary

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ACEs: Also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, ACEs are childhood experiences of abuse (be it physical, emotional, sexual, or mental) and neglect or larger incidents of household challenge. Household challenges includes things such as the prevalence of addiction, mental illness, and incarceration in the home.  ACEs can also be a childhood marked by excessive stress, worry, or poverty.  ACEs scores are a tool used to calculate a person’s vulnerability to trauma and the impacts of trauma. Higher ACEs scores have been associated with increased experiences of incarceration, mental health struggles, and more.

  • For example: Some of the questions on the ACEs quiz are “Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… a) Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or b) Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?” If you answer yes, it denotes a type of trauma experienced in childhood.

Attachment trauma: Refers to internal conflict in the ways we bond and relate to others as we become close to them. This comes from something called 'attachment theory,' which states that our earliest bonds with our primary caretaker or parent dictate how we will form bonds later in life. Attachment trauma can form when a child doesn’t feel safe, isn’t cared or provided for, isn’t comforted, or doesn’t get their needs met on a consistent basis.

  • For example, if a child had an absent parent or caretaker, they may go through life fearing abandonment from others. This is because the fear that others may leave them has been fundamentally written on the slate of that person’s experience from such a young age.

Catastrophizing: Refers to an intense, pressing feeling after enduring a traumatic incident which makes them expect that another trauma or a worst-case-scenario will happen again soon. After experiencing trauma, a person may struggle to know what realistic risks and red flags are.  Their brain may opt into catastrophic thinking in order to protect themselves. This may be hard to recognize — after all, why would your brain make you experience something unpleasant to help you? Similar to being hypervigilant, our brain doesn’t want to be caught off-guard and vulnerable. After we experience trauma, our brain puts on a form of armor — expecting that another really bad thing may follow suit. We normally catastrophize by believing something will inevitably happen, even if it is highly unlikely.

  • For example, if a person was sexually assaulted at a nightclub, they might expect that the same abuse could occur if they go to a nightclub again in their life. They may also fear other worst-case-scenarios, like being in trouble for the abuse occurring, or others blaming them. This may motivate the person to never tell anyone, or not go to places similar to the environment where the original event happened.

Compassion FatigueIs a feeling of 'burnout' and exhaustion when caretakers or service providers are exposed to other’s pain and traumas for an extended period of time. It commonly occurs when people spend time addressing other people’s traumas to such a degree that it becomes difficult for them to prioritize their own.

  • For example, compassion fatigue is a common challenge for  individuals who work in helping roles such as advocates serving sexual assault survivors, especially when they lack the resources and support they need to process the trauma they are exposed to.

Coping mechanism: Refers to a set of tools, skills, practices, thoughts, or actions which help us deal and cope with traumas and their aftermath. Coping mechanisms can be both positive and negative.

  • For example, group therapy can be a healthy coping mechanism when dealing with unpleasant or painful memories. 

Dissociation: Refers to when we disconnect ourselves from painful events or realities that are occurring, almost as if it happened to someone else. This is usually our brain’s protective way of trying to distance ourselves from traumatic events. It can be a ‘mental escape’ from a painful or violent situation.

  • For example, many victims of domestic violence describe 'dissociating' when the violence occurs, and go somewhere else in their mind. They may count to 10 inside their head, they may pretend it’s not real, or fixate their attention on an item in the room instead of fully processing the abuse.

Denial: Is the refusal to accept a painful or upsetting reality. When accepting something as true is harmful or further complicates our emotions, we may resort to denial as a form of protecting ourselves from having to face or accept these harsh truths.

  • For example, a person may be in denial when they have been violated by someone they trusted and respected. Or they may deny or minimize the extent of the abuse they have experienced because it is too painful to acknowledge.

Defense Mechanisms: Can be automatic reactions within our brain to shield us from potentially harmful realities which we may feel are too harmful to face. Instead of facing them, our brain creates a barrier between us and the trauma so we don’t have to think about it, recognize it, or accept it. This barrier allows us to avoid experiencing all the painful emotions that follow. Defense mechanisms are our brain’s way of ‘explaining away’ realities that are deeply troubling.

  • For example, denial, hypervigilance, dissociation, projecting, and misrecognition are all defense mechanisms.

Generational Trauma: Refers to cycles of abuse, oppression, violence, or dysfunction that occurs within a family or shared by a group of people through time. This causes inequities to pervade from generation to generation. 

Healing: Refers to mending of the emotional wounds caused by trauma. Just like how physical wounds heal, emotional wounds can get better over time. Healing isn’t always a peaceful process. In fact, it can be helpful to understand healing as a lifelong process that is not time-limited and flows through stages of difficulty. However, all survivors deserve healing from  what has robbed them of feeling safety, joy, and value. 

  • For example, many survivors find healing through community support, therapy, self-care, compassion, and  the help of loved ones.

Hypervigilance: Can be described as a state of super alertness, like an alarm ready to go off at any second. If we endured traumas in our past, our brain may have learned that we should expect them to happen again. If we always feel that we have to expect something bad to happen, we may feel burdened with having to be ready to identify it when it's occurring, and be prepared to respond and act. When we are hypervigilant, we may misinterpret certain things as red flags or predictors of harm. Being hypervigilant can be  exhausting and anxiety provoking and make us feel unsafe. It’s a state of always having to be 'on' and never letting one’s guard down in order to be in control.

  • For example, when people of color see constant videos of racially driven police brutality, they are forced to become hypervigilant about how even something as simple as walking down the street could lead them to being assaulted, harassed, or murdered.  

Internalized BlameRefers to when we victims blame themselves for traumas or abuse done to do them. This is usually a defense mechanism. When others hurt us, there are many things we cannot control about the situation. Not being in control can be scary, so it may be easier for people to place blame on themselves so they can feel a sense of control. Internalized blame can also occur when systems or abusers misplace accountability on victims, which victims then believe to be true. This is why it is so important that trauma victims and abuse survivors know that it wasn’t their fault.

  • For example, a person might blame themselves for being harassed on the street because they wore a short skirt. This makes them feel in control of whether or not it happens again by choosing to wear different clothing out (despite the fact that clothing is not what caused the abuse). This might be reinforced when they go online and see comments online that people wearing short skirts are 'asking for it.'

MisrecognitionRefers to when we can’t see things for what they are because it is difficult to look objectively at our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The challenge of looking from the outside in at ourselves and our experience means we may not be able to see the connections between how our past experiences shape our present day life.

  • For example: Someone might not be able to see that they fear going to parties because they were sexually abused as a child at a birthday party, and instead think that they don’t like going to parties because just aren’t a very social person.

Post-Traumatic Growth: Refers to positive outcomes despite someone’s experiences of trauma.

  • For example: Some survivors choose to dedicate their lives to violence prevention work as a form of post-traumatic growth. Others choose to raise healthy children or pursue a passion which brings them joy. 

Projecting: Occurs when we expect that our own feelings, thoughts, or experiences are the same as someone else's, even when they don’t feel that way. This is a defense mechanism which may make people attribute traits or actions they don’t like about themselves onto others.

  • For example, if someone is uncomfortable examining their own privilege, they may overreact or project judgement when they are asked by another to see their privilege. It is unfair to push unwanted emotions onto someone or shift blame to avoid our own feelings.

PTSD: Is also known as post-traumatic stress disorder, this refers to a range of symptoms a person can experience in the aftermath of a trauma as they struggle to cope, make sense of it, or simply live on after it. PTSD survivors may experience unwanted thoughts, nightmares, panic attacks, or reliving the experience again.

  • For example, many survivors of sexual assault may experience PTSD immediately after the assault or years later.

Repression: Refers to either conscious or unconscious burying of thoughts, feelings, and memories which are too painful, upsetting, or traumatic to think about. Repressing memories is almost like trying to block them out of our life history.

Re-traumatization: Occurs when we go back into a traumatized state because of triggers.

  • For example, many survivors feel re-traumatized when they read the comments section of news article on sexual violence.

Resilience: Refers to one's ability to heal from trauma and mitigate the negative impacts of trauma.

  • For example, a survivor's growth in various areas of their life speaks to their resilience despite the adversity and barriers they have faced.

Self-soothing: Refers to individuals attempting to fix emotional conflicts on their own without other’s help, support, or guidance. This usually occurs when past experiences make them think that others would not be able to help, would be unwilling to help, or feel that they themselves are 'beyond help.' These behaviors are usually things that have helped us feel better in the past, so we are inclined to turn to them when we need them as we encounter difficulties. Self-medicating is when people use substances like drugs or alcohol to self soothe.

  • For example, a person might chew their nails as a form of self-soothing which helps them manage their anxiety.

TriggeredRefers to an unpleasant and unexpected reminder of a past pain or trauma. When we are triggered, we begin to feel emotions related to a trauma that happened to us in the past, even though those events aren’t being talked about directly.

  • For example, survivors of sexual assault may find violent movies triggering because it makes them think about their own experience, and feel the feelings of fear and pain they felt during the assault.

Trauma-Informed Care: Refers to an awareness of trauma when tending to individuals and recognizing their experiences as a whole person. This framework respects each person as the expert of their own experiences and seeks to view each person's ways of coping and surviving with curiosity rather than judgement and blame. 

  • For example, programs using a trauma-informed approach are strengths based and seek to recognize the family, social, and community contexts of a survivors experience. Another examples to consider is a trauma-informed approach to the criminal justice system which makes efforts to heal offenders instead of punish them as a means of stopping harm cycles.

Vicarious Trauma (Secondary trauma): Refers to an indirect form of trauma which we experience through someone or something else.

  • For example, actively listening to someone sharing a story of trauma may for some people open themselves to those experiences in a way that feels traumatic to the body and mind. Another example to consider is a survivor watching a movie that features a sexual assault and might feel vicarious trauma on behalf of the character in the movie.