By Rochelle Suri Ph.D, Reprinted with Author’s Permission
Dr. Rochelle Suri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from California. She received her Doctoral degree from the California Institute of Integral Studies, in the specialized field of East-West Psychology. She currently lives in Mumbai, India, where she has a private practice, working with adults, children, and families.
Trauma can be caused by several factors and experiences, some more obvious than others. To fully understand and help an individual who is experiencing trauma, one must go beyond the experience and fully investigate and understand the cause(s) of an individual’s trauma. Understanding the cause or causes might provide vital clues in developing ways and tools for working with the trauma itself, enabling a person to manage his or her symptoms of trauma, as well as bringing to the person’s awareness the original causes that may result in retraumatization. This entry introduces the causes of trauma, focusing on the following areas: conceptualization of the causes of trauma, emotional and psychological trauma, spiritual trauma, and cultural trauma. Also provided is an overview of other causes of trauma that may be generally overlooked.
All causes of trauma have three aspects in common:
- An external cause: It is generally believed that trauma is not inflicted on oneself by oneself. It has to be inflicted by another person or by something else. The suddenness and the unpredictability of the situation or experience are key components in experiencing something as traumatic.
- Violation: This refers to the sense of experiencing something or someone as an intrusion in the individual’s life. In other words, the individual may experience his or her physical, emotional, and psychological self as being invaded by an unwelcomed and unexpected person or thing that presents itself as a major source of distress.
- Loss of control: Because the traumatic experience is unexpected and sudden, individuals, more often than not, are unprepared for the situation. This can then result in a sense of feeling overwhelmed and helpless, leaving the individual feeling extremely vulnerable and exposed to the cause of trauma.
The causes of trauma may differ from one individual to another—that is, what is perceived as a traumatic experience for one person may not necessarily be the same for someone else. However, it could be stated that some causes of trauma may be generalized to a larger population. These causes may be considered universal because of their tendency to affect individuals from various cultural, social, political, religious, spiritual, economic, and psychological backgrounds. The following section discusses what are believed to be universal causes or sources of trauma.
Emotional and Psychological Trauma
This type of trauma directly affects the individual’s psychological and emotional makeup and functioning. In other words, emotional and psychological trauma may interfere with the way an individual processes emotions, perceives situations, expresses feelings, and responds to circumstances (known and unknown), as well as the manner in which the person will deal with the trauma. The causes of this kind of trauma include but are not limited to sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, intense exposure to poverty, domestic violence, loss of a loved one (sudden or gradual), exposure to war, acts of violence, insomnia, exposure to alcoholism and substance abuse, intense torture (as in wars), being a victim of theft or robbery, and being diagnosed with a lifethreatening illness or life condition. Another cause of emotional and/or psychological trauma is the diagnosis of a mental or psychiatric illness, which can deeply impair an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. All of these causes can affect an individual in ways that interrupt or interfere with his or her daily functioning.
This kind of trauma, increasingly gaining recognition as an important area in traumatology, is related to the spiritual beliefs and frameworks of an individual and how these are affected, challenged, modified, or betrayed by another person or thing. The causes of spiritual trauma include but are not limited to the following: spiritual emergency (refers to a type of spiritual crisis that leads to sudden spiritual and mystical experiences that a person may not be able to deal with in the moment), religious dogmatization, deep loss of faith, and forced conversion of religious faith. Sexual and/or emotional abuse by religious officials (such as clergy, religious preachers and teachers, religious gurus, or masters) is also another possible cause of spiritual trauma, resulting in a sense of betrayal in one’s faith.
This category of trauma relates to situations or experiences that individuals experience together, either as a collective or social group. This group may play the role of perpetrators, victims, or spectators. Whatever the role, the group is affected by the experience in some form or another, and the residual effect of the experience may be passed on to several generations, thus resulting in future generations experiencing an innate sense of trauma even though it was not directly inflicted on them. An example of cultural trauma is that experienced by current generations or peoples of Germany whose Nazi ancestors perpetrated heinous and deplorable acts of violence against the Jews. Some of the causes of cultural trauma include but are not limited to racism and apartheid, colonialism, and political and economic discrimination. The oppression of minorities, either in a domestic or foreign country, could also be a significant cause of cultural trauma. For instance, the oppression of certain races or tribes, the oppression of religious faiths or denominations, and the oppression of or discrimination against a particular sex are some examples of the causes of cultural trauma.
Neglected Causes of Trauma
Although emotional, psychological, spiritual, and cultural causes of trauma are universally considered and understood, some causes of trauma tend to be overlooked or neglected. It is not clear why this is the case, although these causes are now coming to light and are being given more attention. More research and exploratory studies are being conducted in the following areas that are believed to be possible causes of trauma: physical falls or injuries, sport injuries, surgery (minor or major), automobile accidents, sudden or planned termination of a relationship, humiliating or deeply disappointing experiences, social isolation (involuntary), natural disasters, exposure to extreme climatic conditions, childbirth stress (for mother and/or child) and chronic pain, to name a few. It is hoped that, with further studies and exploration, more light will be shed on how these causes of trauma affect an individual’s life.
Another area that has recently been focused on, although hitherto neglected, is that of childhood trauma. Recent studies and research have established that trauma experienced in childhood can have severe and long-lasting effects into adulthood, especially when not resolved. Some of the causes of childhood trauma include the following: an unstable or unsafe environment; separation from a parent; debilitating illness; intrusive medical and dental procedures; sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal abuse; emotional and physical neglect; domestic violence; bullying; and the pressure to excel (e.g., in academics, sports, or extracurricular activities).
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that what one person perceives to be traumatic or life threatening (either consciously or unconsciously) may not necessarily be the same for another. As Peter Levine has noted, an individual’s perception of trauma is based on the person’s age, life experience, and constitutional temperament. Therefore, when assessing or investigating the causes of trauma, one should not assume that a certain cause or factor will necessarily be experienced as traumatic in an individual’s life. This is especially the case when working with individuals from different cultural, religious, socioeconomic, spiritual, and racial backgrounds. Rochelle V. Suri