LifeTip: The Continuum of Stress & Trauma


Image © Natalia Amari

Sometimes the idea that a particular life event is a trauma can feel scary and overwhelming. The experience of labeling a specific event as traumatic or not is, in essence, subjective.

For many individuals, it can be powerful and relieving to name an event or series of events as traumatic. Others may consider a similar event a stressor, and it may be equally beneficial to refer to it as such. Even benign experiences, like taking a walk or eating candy, can be experienced as traumatic due to a history of trauma. Of course, it is also important to note that some events may not cause any stress at all.

Given how subjective these experiences can be, how on earth do we identify a trauma or a stressor?

After we experience an event we perceive it through many different filters, such as:

  • Human Physiological Response (heart beats fast, palms sweat, muscles tense…)
  • Life Circumstance (living alone, partnered, un/under/employed, in school…)
  • Temperament (personality, general outlook/approach to life…)
  • Cultural Norms (attitudes, expectations, traditions, rituals…)
  • Societal Response (news media, social media, local community, school, work…)
  • Resiliency & Vulnerability Factors (the presence or absence of diverse skills to handle adversity, such as social capital, self-efficacy, socioeconomic status…)
  • Prior Life Experiences (history of privilege, oppression, traumas…)

There may be many more filters than this, but these are a few notable ones.

After we perceive the event through these filters, we interpret the information on the continuum of stress and trauma as:

  • Eustress (the good stress that motivates you to work on that paper to turn it in on time!)
  • Distress (you know, when stuff breaks down and throws your day off course)
  • Acute Traumatic Response (an immediate reaction to the experience)
  • Chronic Traumatic Response (an ongoing sense of feeling traumatized by the experience)
  • Delayed Traumatic Response (when the impact remains dormant until something later in life that draws up the prior experience)

Viewing stress and trauma on a shared continuum creates a more open dialogue. One where the individual labels the experience on a continuum based on their own beliefs, values, feelings, and experiences. This continuum then helps to foster more freedom, choice and empowerment. And with this, comes more avenues for healing.