Trauma vs. Difficult Life Experiences

Trauma Vs. Difficult Life Experiences

Many people have experienced some trauma in their lives. All of us experience difficult events and times that we may or may not have recovered from. What exactly is a traumatic experience and how does it differ from an experience that is just plain difficult?


The dictionary defines trauma as “an extremely distressing experience that causes severe emotional shock and may have long-term psychological effects.” Many people view trauma as an experience that completely overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope or integrate emotions involved with that experience, and that is outside the realm of normal human experience. Pay attention to the words describing a traumatic experience: “extremely distressing,” “severe emotional shock,” overwhelm(ing,)” “outside the realm.” These words identify a trauma as an extreme event.

Examples of traumatic experiences might include a car accident involving death or injury, a combat experience, being physically or sexually assaulted, or your house burning down. These experiences and many others are definitely outside the realm of expected life experiences. Everyone would agree that they are indeed traumatic.

Difficult Life Experiences

But what life experiences may not fall under the definition of ‘traumatic’ but definitely feel traumatic? Experiences such as being bullied on the playground, having a parent who preferred a sibling over you or who never acknowledged your worth, or a death of a loved one at a young age? Also, divorce can feel traumatic to everyone concerned but since it is so common these days, maybe it doesn’t meet the standards of being traumatic. Should any of these events be considered traumatic?

Think about your childhood experiences and also your child’s(ren’s) experiences. Maybe you had some situations occur as an adolescent or young adult – even if they don’t fall under the ‘traumatic’ definition – that still bother you like a thorn in your side? Do you feel intense sadness or resentment when you think about them? How about fear or guilt? It is common to have intensely emotional responses to events that might not be considered traumatic.

Both Trauma and Difficult Life Experiences Keep Us Stuck

Whether we label our negative experiences as traumatic or difficult may depends on the perspective of the person experiencing them. One person may be able to handle a certain experience while we have a harder time, and that same person may find another experience really hard to deal with while we don’t find that experience that difficult. Difficult life experiences are just as important to address in therapy as are more explicitly defined traumatic experiences. Paying attention to these kinds of experiences in therapy result in releases of the emotional energy that was used to keep them contained. Don’t discount them – they may be the anchor that keeps your ship from sailing to your desired destination. These are the kinds of things we can discuss during your therapy.