Given the number of social media posts, trauma workshops, trauma conversations, and training around being trauma informed, ‘trauma’ has become a buzzword, a shorthand for all the human maladies. After the popularisation of antidepressants, this great status was once enjoyed by depression, but not anymore. Trauma, which was earlier marginalised and had roots in feminist history, is now all around us: apparently everyone has trauma.
As Judith Herman points out, the diagnostic history of trauma is rooted in identity politics. Survivors of interpersonal violence, sexual and physical abuse, were termed as the hysterics, who were displayed and paraded in a room full of men. It was only after World Wars 1 and 2, and the Vietnam war, when the strongest of the men (soldiers) started to break down like “women,” that trauma became a topic of attention. Moreover, it was further after decades of feminist struggle that sexual trauma was recognized as part of the DSM. The history of trauma is a history of identity politics, and thus for all of us who are engaged in the discourse of trauma, the first question that requires bearing is “whose suffering becomes part of the trauma world, and whose suffering remains ignored, marginalised and silenced?” The study of trauma is a study of silence and in silence: that which requires being heard, and that which cannot bear the consequences of being heard. Thus, trauma is not just an event but what happens after the event.
We live in a world where the term ‘trauma’ is often overused. I want us to pause here and think: What are the ways that you find trauma being used colloquially right now? Which are the different spaces where you’re seeing it? For the purpose of this article, we will define trauma as “anything that’s too much, too fast, too soon, not enough” (Levine) . This wider definition of trauma offers solace from the DSM’s (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which might only account for 8 percent of the population. The DSM definition of trauma with its list of symptoms and check-lists, ignores the wider spectrum/lived experience of trauma. The lived experience of trauma understands that trauma is not an event, but what happens after, and trauma symptoms are not something that need to be fixed, but understood as a resource for the person. Psychiatric medicines kill the wisdom of the messages that symptoms bring for the person.
It is important that we widen our understanding of trauma, as what is traumatic or not traumatic shifts according to identity and context. For example: a traffic jam in Kashmir can be experienced as traumatic as it increases the risk of hypervigilance, feelings of being targeted, or a threat of military combat, whereas a traffic jam in a city is usually just annoying. Identity and context shift the meaning of trauma. In a culture obsessed with the term trauma, every minor annoyance is termed as traumatic. In Psychology, trauma has taken the position of a teenager who replaces all experiences with the word FK — happiness, sadness, disappointment, all are replaced with FK. The difficulty with overuse of the term is that it reduces multi-layered experiences with a term reserved for what are the most overwhelming experiences that we can have as humans. Human meaning is rooted in language, so the first step for us as survivors and practitioners is to think of experiences on a spectrum (and introducing that to the client’s as well): unpleasant experiences can be difficult, challenging, uncomfortable, and sometimes traumatic. A survivor naturally goes into crisis mode and merges all experiences into “traumatic”; however, one can imagine the psychological toll it might take for them to keep functioning in crisis, with their body being in a constant state of alert. This spectrum is also helpful for us as a society, who are putting all experiences under the blanket term of trauma, and thus undermining diverse ways in which people and society experience crises and healing.
A socio-centric approach or a healing-centred approach (Ginwright) would ask “What did the person have access to?”, “How is this trauma a reflection of the social oppressions in a society?”, “How is society responsible for healing?”. Is psychology ready to ask: is trauma a result of poverty, human rights violations, oppression, social class struggles, climate change, fall of family systems, and capitalism? For example, can we as mental health practitioners actively trace interpersonal violence to the gender and social status of the survivor, rather than looking solely inside the individual? If a child’s experience of daily bullying is caused by their marginalised identity (caste, class, religion, gender etc.), can we truly and actively incorporate this reality into our interventions, and not merely give it lip-service? When faced with female clients who struggle with freezing during intimacy, can we understand that their hesitation to say no is partly rooted in the gendered nature of consent, i.e. the power of saying ‘no’ or ‘yes’ that she has been denied all her life? In short, these struggles need to be rooted in the social, and the social also needs to become responsible for healing. This is because one of the most important steps in trauma work requires shifting the blame (shame) where it belongs, that is moving the blame from “I am bad” to “Something bad happened to me”. We can extend it — “Something oppressive exists in society”.
Let’s look at the case of Jyoti, a 16 year old who in her first session expressed her desire to continue her education and to live in a hostel away from her family. As we sat together to take her history Jyoti complained about severe headaches. She appeared hesitant and nervous, and in a low tone, Jyoti expressed being sexually abused by her father. Gradually she began trusting us and disclosed that from a very young age, her father repeatedly touched her private parts, masturbated, and would say sexually explicit words to her as she tried to sleep. Jyoti expressed being angry at her mother for not intervening and being a silent spectator to her abuse. As therapy progressed, and with some hesitation, Jyoti was finally able to narrate these series of incidents to her mother. She decided to approach the police department as well but no legal action was taken and her father was sent back after a warning. Jyoti had encountered the failure of the legal system before, yet a part of her was determined to file a complaint and receive the stalled justice and safety she hoped for herself. After days of pressurising the police a legal case was registered and her father was sentenced to 5 years of jail under POCSO charges. On hearing this, Jyoti felt happy, relieved, and safe, as if her experience was heard and validated. Jyoti expressed the desire to continue her education again and met with the school principal who more than willingly welcomed her. Jyoti felt excited to return back to school.
However, soon her paternal side of the family blamed Jyoti and her mother for the arrest of her father and bringing shame to the family. As the family distress grew, Jyoti’s mother longed for her husband’s return and soon enough she was institutionalised by the family. The institutionalisation of her mother, baggage of family blame, and repeated taunting made Jyoti feel hopeless. Jyoti felt alone and stigmatised by her neighbourhood. The peers around her would ignore and shame her. Jyoti’s movement in the community reflected the turmoil and displacement she experienced within herself and with her family: wandering, getting lost, and being returned by police personnel.
Where does Jyoti’s suffering and healing lie? Would her trauma be different if she had the support of her neighbours, the support of the legal system, and the presence of a community that includes than the one that isolates? One thing we know about trauma is trauma isolates the individual from the social, a terrifying and tragic response at a time when social can heal. Does individual therapy have the potential to bridge this gap?
We find some answers in the community and adoption of art in the community. Trauma is not a modern problem and neither is the healing of it. Angeles Arrien, cultural anthropologist noted that the earliest healing practitioner asked: “When did you stop dancing? Singing? Enchanted by stories.” If you think about it, all communities had hymns, songs, stories, and prayers they felt connected to. So, what do we as modern communities do to sing, dance, play, drum, re-build and mourn together?
We do some of these in the community with art.
In the city of Medellin, Columbia, comuna 13 displays graffiti of citizens of the neighbourhood who suffered immensely due to the drug cartel and police violence, and governmental neglect. The streets are lined with various paintings, expressing hope, suffering, loss, blood-shed, as a witnessing of these experiences. Trauma needs that kind of witnessing.
Another, powerful example of traditional art serving to represent collective trauma comes from Hmong women, an ethnic group that spans across south east Asia (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, china). Hmong people aligned with the USA during the Vietnam War. As a consequence, many Hmong individuals and families faced persecution and danger when the war ended and communist forces took control in the region. Facing dire circumstances and fearing for their lives, a significant number of Hmong people fled their homes and sought refuge in neighboring countries, particularly Thailand. This displacement created a complex and challenging situation for the Hmong refugees, as they found themselves in a state of uncertainty—unable to return home and yet not fully integrated into their new surroundings. During this period of upheaval and transition, Hmong women turned to their cultural heritage and traditional crafts, known as “Paj Ntaub Tib Neeg” as a way to cope with their experiences and preserve their stories.
The art of creating story-cloths was already a well-established tradition among the Hmong. These textiles were originally used to convey aspects of Hmong culture, history, and identity, given the absence of a written language for much of their history. However, in the context of the Vietnam War and the subsequent displacement, the content of the story-cloths took on new dimensions. Hmong women began to use their skills to embroider narratives of survival, flight, loss, and hope onto these textiles. Each intricate pattern and design on the cloth carried symbolic meaning, reflecting personal and collective experiences. These story-cloths serve as a form of visual storytelling, allowing the Hmong people to communicate their experiences across generations, and to outsiders. The artistry and skills required to create these textiles are significant, and the story-cloths have not only preserved the trauma history of the Hmong people but have also become a source of economic empowerment for many Hmong women.
Thus, the questions for mental health practitioners lie in challenging the core of our practices: our tools, our ethics, our ways of inclusion and exclusion. We have to ask if our interventions include the community and the social. Often, even if our interventions are individual, can they extend to the community? A wonderful example comes from Paula Ramirez who worked in South Sudan to support a burial team of seven men in Bentiu. The men were in-charge of digging graves and burying bodies of displaced individuals after the 2013 war in Sudan. Ramirez realised that during ‘body scans’, one of the popular trauma therapy techniques, participants would often freeze thinking of the dead bodies that do not move (since ‘body scans’ involves lying on the ground and not moving). Taking the cue from the participants, Ramirez asked: what were the rituals their ancestors had to bury bodies? Thus, the group decided to perform rituals for all the bodies that they had buried. Together they came up with a ritual using tree fabric that the communities used to wrap the bodies around and let go of those bodies in the way their ancestors did.
Thus, the question that we must answer in our practice is: does our intervention connect the trauma survivor to the community or outside of the community? Does our intervention hold the social accountable or atleast a shareholder of the individual’s suffering and healing? Trauma requires witnessing, a presence, that needs to go outside of the therapy room to find home in the social.
I received my doctoral training in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh USA. I have worked with survivors of interpersonal violence at Sakhi for South Asian Women, New York, and worked with students at the Carnegie Mellon University Counseling center, Pittsburgh and Pace University counseling center, New York. Most recently, I was the Program Leader for the community mental health program at Bapu Trust, Pune, where I work from a socio-psychological lens with individuals from low-income neighborhoods.