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What is Ordinary or Developmental Trauma?

I was sitting calmly the other day drinking my coffee when I overheard a conversation about somebody considering going to therapy. The person was conflicted because she could not decide if her problem was that “big” (whatever the definition of “big” in her mind was).  I could hardly contained myself from interrupting but  left thinking about the important need of educating people about what therapy is, when they can benefit from it, and when and how to look for it.

Most people think that depending on what happened, they are allowed to feel one thing or another. As if we have to have a logical explanation of the incident before we can feel and/or ask for help. Therefore, I decided I have to start by explaining the topic of trauma.

Trauma Definition:

According to the Standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM-IV) trauma is the result of having “experienced, witnessed or been confronted with . . . actual or threatened death or serious injury . . . to self or others” and responding to that event with “intense fear, helplessness or horror.” However, experts are rethinking the fundamental assumptions about trauma. This definition isn’t wrong, but it’s woefully incomplete. In fact, any negative life event occurring in a state of relative helplessness–a car accident, the sudden death of a loved one, a frightening medical procedure, a significant experience of rejection–can produce the same neurophysiologic changes in the brain as do combat, rape, or abuse. What makes a negative life event traumatizing isn’t the life-threatening nature of the event, but rather the degree of helplessness it engenders and one’s history of prior trauma. (Networker, 2012)

This is significant since the majority of people have not experience the typically traumatic events such as rape, war, natural disaster, physical abuse as a child or having been in foster care…thank goodness!.  However, almost everybody has felt alone, embarrassed, rejected, scared, insecure, inadequate, not good enough, powerless and hopeless sometime in their life. Depending of the depth of the wounding, those experiences can be traumatic for the individual if they accumulate enough pain that interfere with daily life.  So, the determination of trauma is based on the effect and not the event. Originally, trauma was referred only to typical obvious situations such as … Now, there is a new term referred to ordinary or developmental trauma.  There is a slight difference, due to the fact that the first one tends to describe mostly the nature of the event (things that happen in everyday life) and the second alludes to the duration (situations or events that happen to the individual recurrently while growing up that impedes psychological health).  The main symptoms people experience are anxiety and depression, as well as obsessive trends, addictions or difficulty thriving in life and relationships.  Keep in mind that there is a whole spectrum of severity in any of these categories.  Nevertheless, the main caveat is that with ordinary/ developmental trauma the events can be very subtle or for the most part is actually the lack or deficiency of something that is the problem.  To make things worse people then have a secondary problem because they have the symptoms but they don’t understand what happened to them since nothing seems to be so bad.  So they now blame themselves or feel broken.  The point is that if something is bothering you, it is bothering you…and you might have experienced some ordinary/developmental trauma. As family therapist and teacher for more than twenty five years, Terry Real says” “If you see the fingerprints you might recognize the finger.”  

Therefore, for a broader understanding of what trauma is based on the effect, let’s take the concept of fear from the traditional definition of trauma, and look deeper into it. A simple and useful definition of fear is:

An anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience perceived as dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat (Meridian-Webster Dictionary).

Medical experts tell us that the anxious feeling we get when we’re afraid is a standardized biological reaction. It’s pretty much the same set of body signals, whether we’re afraid of getting bitten by a dog, getting turned down for a date, or getting our taxes audited (Albrecht, PhD., Psychology Today, 2012).

Secondly, lets clarify that when we refer to death or serious injury it does not have to be only physical, since as Dr. Albretch (2012) explains one of the main psychological fears human beings experience is what he calls Ego-death – fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness. The other main fears we are all expose through life that create opportunity for this type of trauma are abandonment, engulfment or loss of autonomy, and annihilation.

So how do you determine if you might have this type of trauma? Most people might say something like this: “I just can’t seem to stop my mind,” “I try to relax, but after a few moments, my brain starts again with usually obsessive thoughts and preoccupations. Lots of times, it’s the same old thing, just the same old negative thoughts and worries and blaming myself to the point that I feel sick to my stomach or feels helpless.”  From here people find different ways (functional to dysfunctional) to cope with.

Thus the point is to not try to turn them off or run away, because you actually can’t. The goal is to understand the meaning of these everyday emergency responses, and to transform them into opportunities for healing.  If you start paying attention, without judging yourself, you could notice and find patterns that can allow you to understand and resolve these disturbances and have a more fully life. If the same things happen to your neighbor or sibling and it does not bother him/her, they probably have not experience it in the same way. But it if bothers you to an extent that troubles you, give yourself the opportunity to take care of that. I guarantee you that some things that don’t bother you, bother them, because it is part of the human experience and the imperfection of life. Let yourself be the determinant of what you need and what a better life means to you.

You are the only one that knows when a cold gets serious or old enough to go to the doctor, …same thing here!