“Trauma” has become commonly used to describe life’s challenging experiences. My sense is that overall this is a good thing- it has increased the visibility of trauma, our awareness of others’ potential experience of trauma, and the need for healing. At the same time I think it’s helpful to be clear about what is involved in traumatic experiences and how these may be different from relational stress.
Trauma is a threat to safety which is coupled with the defensive responses of fight, flight, freeze, or shut down and extreme arousal. This may look like an impulse to run away, intense anger, becoming immobile or numb and a quickening heartbeat, difficulty breathing or deep agitation. It’s important to remember that danger or life threat is subjectively experienced—the type of event that triggers a trauma response is unique to everyone. Events may include the experience of violence, sexual violence, war, natural disaster, car crashes, other accidents, or some other situation in which an individual feels that their safety (or the safety of someone they are close to) is threatened.
Relational stress, on the other hand, refers to experiences that cause distress because of relational challenges and difficulties that do not evoke the defense responses or extreme arousal. These include relationships or relational experiences that make us feel inadequate and unseen. Relational stress reflects misattunements across the lifespan, including distressing attachment experiences with primary caregivers, relational challenges as children mature into adolescence and adulthood, and demeaning experiences of marginalized people that are perpetuated by power and oppression.
Early childhood, particularly the first five years of life are particularly vulnerable for the experience of relational stress and trauma, creating a blueprint for a child’s later development.
Relational stress and trauma, often overlap, impacting individuals’ thoughts, emotions, ability to regulate, and their bodies as a whole.
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Ogden, P. (2021). The Pocket Guide to Sensorimotor Psychotherapy in Context (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.