Understanding Trauma

In your day-to-day conversations or on the news, it’s quite likely that you have heard someone describe an experience as “traumatic.” While sometimes, such statements can be an exaggeration, events that cause a trauma-response in the people who experience them are quite common. Generally, a traumatic event is understood to be one that negatively impacts a person’s, family’s, or community’s well-being, often causing disruption, distress, and suffering. People often experience the same event differently, so what one person considers to be trauma-inducing, another person might view as a minor occurrence. This shows that events in themselves are not traumatic, but people’s experiences of them can be, and many different types of events and experiences are potentially traumatic.

Anyone can Experience Trauma

While not all people experience trauma in the same way, it is important to understand that potentially traumatic experiences can happen at anytime, anywhere, to anyone. Trauma is universal and can impact anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, age, religion, and other identity characteristics. Because traumatic events are so commonplace, social workers are extremely likely to come into contact with individuals who have been traumatized by something they’ve experienced. In order to effectively support clients who have survived a traumatic event, it is important for social workers to understand the universality of trauma.

Early studies of trauma focused on veterans of the Vietnam War, who often returned to the U.S. with various psychological difficulties. With increased study of psychological trauma, today social service professionals understand that there is a wide range of events, situations, and experiences that people perceive as traumatic. These include but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, child abuse and neglect, domestic and/or interpersonal violence, experiencing or witnessing other forms of violence, death of a loved one, natural disasters (hurricanes, famine/drought, tsunamis), and acts of terrorism (for example, 9/11, school shootings). All of these events can cause emotional damage to those who experience them, and the psychological effects of such traumatic experiences are often lasting. As trauma scholars Courtois & Gold (2009) point out, we now have a greater “awareness on a societal level of the broad reach, financial costs, and lasting adverse impact of traumatic events.”

Exposure to Traumatic Events is Common

While it was previously thought by leading psychological scholars and scientists that traumatic occurrences were rare and only a small minority of the population was exposed to them, more recent studies attest to the universality of trauma. A 2005 study in Sweden found that 80% of adults had experienced at least one traumatic event (Frans, Rimmo, Aberg, & Frederikson, 2005). An earlier study of adults in Detroit, Michigan found a similar rate of trauma exposure with nearly 90% of people experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime (Breslau, Kessler, Chilcoat, Schultz, Davis, & Andreski, 1991). While the likelihood that a person has experienced a traumatic event would seem to increase with age, another recent study found that approximately 70% of children were exposed to a traumatic event by the age of 16 (Copeland, Keeler, Angold, & Costello, 2007). These studies reveal that trauma is a common experience, and the majority of the population can be expected to experience a traumatic event at some point in life.

The Importance of a Trauma-Informed Lens

Because trauma is so widespread, it is of critical importance that MSW students receive training in trauma treatment during their graduate studies. Many universities offer courses in trauma, with some offering focus areas, concentrations, or specializations in trauma. Recognizing and understanding the universality of trauma provides current and future social workers a glimpse into the urgent need for social workers who are able to help the traumatized thrive.


Courtois, C. A., & Gold, S. N. (2009). The need for inclusion of psychological trauma in the professional curriculum: A call to action. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 1(1), 3–23. https://doi-org.libproxy.tulane.edu/10.1037/a0015224

Frans, Ö., Rimmö, P. A., Åberg, L., & Fredrikson, M. (2005). Trauma exposure and post- traumatic stress disorder in the general population. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 111, 291–299.

Breslau, N., Kessler, R. C., Chilcoat, H. D., Schultz, L. R., Davis, G. C., & Andreski, P. (1998). Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in the community: The 1996 Detroit survey of Trauma. Archives of General Psychiatry, 55, 626–632.

Copeland, W. E., Keeler, G., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2007). Traumatic events and posttraumatic stress in childhood. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 577–584.