Four Reasons to Think About More than Labels

Posted on July 23, 2020

I keep wondering when we’re going to abandon–maybe reject–the names of events as indicative of trauma. After all, what makes an event traumatic is the response it evokes.


This is why it’s true that all traumatic events are change, but not all change is traumatic.


Now think about how often you hear people describing changes in plans, changes in situations, and other changes as "traumatic." Is that helpful? I don’t think so. I think we need to improve our vocabularies.

Think about these four questions:

  • Did the event overwhelm them to the point of being unable to cope? (Unable to cope is big).
  • Does it render them unable to make sense of what happened in the moment or as they think about it later?
  • Is it something they can’t integrate into their life?
  • Does it threaten their life, bodily integrity, or sanity–when it happened or later?

If the answers are "yes," then it’s been processed as a traumatic event (no matter what kind of change it is!). Doesn’t matter what the name of it is, it might even be something others would find exciting or exhilarating. Could be winning the lottery. Could be a miraculous healing. Could be... anything.


Any change might be traumatic, but many changes could be described as making a person feel awkward, uncomfortable, incompetent, distressed, annoyed, or anxious. In order to use these words to define an experience, folks have to know them.


The difference between change being unpleasant, distressing, difficult, awful and traumatic is often the response others make to the person who experiences it.


Given connection, hopeful support and reasonable coping skills, something that might be traumatic can be difficult instead. When we help people remember and nurture strong positive connections that are the "glue" in healthy (or healthier) relationships, we lessen the frequency with which any change is processed as "traumatic."


Perhaps these are the four questions that should shape how we support ourselves or others as change occurs—instead of automatically labeling it "traumatic":

  • When something big changes in your life, what’s your first reaction? How do you label it?
  • How well do you tolerate discomfort?
  • Do you have people you can count on for sounding boards, who will "tell it to you straight"?
  • If your sanity, bodily integrity or life have been threatened, are there people around who shield you? (Remember, all trauma is change—but not all change is traumatic.)

The four reasons to think about more than names? Simple.

  1. Each person lives in a context that may assign different meanings to different events. For example, while "beating" in American schools is punishable by law, school discipline in refugee camps in other countries may include actions that are called "beating." We have no idea what that means except as we understand the word in our All change—whether traumatic or not—is bound by context.
  2. What is merely "unpleasant" or "difficult" to one may be "traumatic" to another. Even though we have shared meaning about specific kinds of events, there are many others on which we impose a meaning that may not be shared.
  3. When we confine "trauma" to a specific set of acts, we require people to "own" those acts to receive our care–whether or not they are the most problematic for them.
  4. Limiting a mindset to names only–abuse, neglect, combat, rape, torture–limits the breadth of human experience and its’ impact. The creativity of people who inflict awful things on others is unparalleled. Our ability to comprehend that breadth should also be unparalleled.

I often ask in classes, "To whom might a hangnail be traumatic?" The ability to answer depends on thinking in terms of the impact instead of the name of an event. If you are newly diagnosed with diabetes, or a blood borne disease such as Hepatitis C, or HIV, or if you are an infant who has never experienced a tear in your flesh and there is no one to tend to you, you might–might–process a hangnail as a threat to your life, bodily integrity or sanity.


For the rest of us? It’s an annoyance, most likely.


Let’s go beyond names to impact when we're deciding if it's a non-traumatic change as well as when it's traumatic.


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Elizabeth Power, M. Ed.

Extraordinary Speaker. Superb Facilitator.

CEO of EPower & Associates, Inc. is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, teacher, and consultant.  Her firm’s specialty is helping organizations make and manage change through learning and doing.  Her mastery of diverse interests and innovation has been recognized worldwide through awards and publications across a wide spectrum of disciplines.