Psychological trauma is not a new phenomenon, but it is newly studied. Flagged by pioneering psychoanalysts at the end of the 19th century as a wound of the psyche, the term trauma is a modern way of describing how violence impacts us psychologically and emotionally. Sigmund Freud noted that veterans of World War I did not simply recall the violence they had endured in the war but were reliving it in the present. That observation defied existing theories of time and experience. The veterans’ failure to delineate between then and now signaled to early theorists of trauma that the timeline of how we interpret experiences is profoundly shattered in cases of overwhelming violence.
In 1983, the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) entered the psychiatric diagnostic manual. Judith Herman’s 1992 book Trauma and Recovery brought trauma to further public attention by noting the similarities between the experiences of combat veterans and those of sexual abuse survivors. Studies of second-generation Holocaust survivors inaugurated collaborative work across disciplines and generated what is now referred to as trauma theory. These works widened the scope of study from an exclusively psychological framework to literary, historical, and philosophical accounts of experience, and they moved from the interpersonal to the collective realm. For example, Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved provides a specter of the unaddressed trauma of chattel slavery in the figure of a dead child whose ghost returns to tell truths about the past. Morrison understood that cycles of violence play out across generations. The wounds do not simply go away.
Experiences of pain, loss, and suffering are part of human experience, and in time many are able to integrate the suffering into their lives. But trauma refers to an experience in which the process of integration becomes stuck. Pastoral theologian Carrie Doehring identifies trauma as “a bio-psycho-spiritual response to overwhelming life events.” In traumatic response, there is a breakdown of multiple systems that we rely on to protect us from harm and to process harm. In these cases, our systems are not simply slow to integrate the impact; they fail to integrate it. Trauma marks a “new normal” in that there is no possibility of the person returning to who they were before. A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one.
The therapeutic challenge facing someone who has experienced trauma remains that of integrating the experience into their life.