OPINION: The problem with describing every challenging situation as trauma.

Trauma is such a heavy word. A powerful word.

It gives people a way to describe the impact an event has had on their life and makes people stop, take notice, and offer compassion.

Well, it did. Sadly, over the years I have noticed the power ebbing away from the word, due to overuse. 

Because trauma is now trendy.

Everyone has trauma.

It has become an epidemic.

Watch: Clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani explains why the term 'trauma' is being overused. Story continues after video.

Video via MedCircle.

Trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, triggers – all these words are now used daily and used everywhere. I remember seeing an ad for the television show A Current Affair advertising a story where the person speaks of their trauma caused by Australia Post no longer recognising their address. 

In researching this article, I also heard an example where a person was traumatised because they grew up in a humid city where they had frizzy hair, students saying they could not do exams because of trauma around the elections occurring in the United States, and someone traumatised by their car breaking down.

People can now experience what they deem to be trauma through a variety of mediums. It can be through seeing a photo of a stillborn baby on Instagram, watching the news, or experiencing road rage. The potential for 'trauma' is now everywhere.


But if everything is trauma, then is anything? 

Why this increase? Are there more traumatic experiences around? Or is the meaning of the word changing? 

In a research paper titled 'The Creeping Concept of Trauma' by Nick Haslam and Melanie McGrath from the University of Melbourne, they use a term called 'concept creep'. This is when the meaning of a word changes over time, where it can now refer to a much broader range of experiences, actions, or people than it did before. They provided examples of clinical terms that over time had broadened in meaning and become more widely adopted into our vernacular – words such as abuse, bullying, and addiction.

Trauma is following this same pattern – we now have 'trauma creep'.

There is also talk in the paper about how the creep can be horizontal or vertical. Horizontal creep is where the term expands to encompass similar situations; which feels more legitimate. Whereas vertical creep, which is what I believe is happening with the word trauma, is when the term can start being used for less extreme situations. 

I don’t think anyone would argue that there are some horrible things occurring in the world that deserve the powerful language words such as trauma provide. Trauma is very real. But I do not think that life is suddenly more traumatic now than it has been in the past. So much so that now everyone states they have some sort of trauma.


It can be argued that there is a positive to the creep in this terminology, such as society becoming more comfortable in discussing emotions or mental health. As well as more assistance being available to people who previously didn’t fit into a category that could receive help. However, the overuse and misuse of the word trauma and of mental health conditions like PTSD can have worrying implications.

Firstly, for people to hijack the word means those who have legitimately suffered a trauma and/or are experiencing PTSD may feel their experience is invalidated. While trauma is not a competition, it can be extremely triggering for someone with a legitimate trauma to hear someone use the term for a challenging situation simply because it has slid into their vernacular.

It may also result in those who really do need help not to receive the appropriate support from friends and family who feel burn out from their own 'trauma' or others around them also claiming trauma. Support services could become overwhelmed with people needing assistance, pushing those who truly need it to the back of the queue or leaving them without help at all.

This dramatisation of our language could also lead to more depression. If everyone begins to feel that a situation they have experienced is traumatic because that is the wording society uses more, it has the ability for more people to feel that the world is filled with nothing but pain and sadness, making life feel overwhelming. It will lead to a lack of resilience and the lack of capacity to understand that often things in life are uncomfortable. Experiences do not have to be extreme - neither amazing nor traumatic. They can simply be good, bad, hard, okay, or disappointing. We need to re-learn what it is like to simply sit in our discomfort.


As for the overuse of the term PTSD in society, it is problematic. Even if you experience a legitimately traumatic event or series of events, it is not enough to lead to a PTSD diagnosis. PTSD is so much more than a term to use when you are reminded of a challenging time. It is when long-term symptoms interfere in a person’s life. Symptoms can include flashbacks, hypervigilance, severe anxiety, changes in perspectives on life, extreme physiological reactivity, avoidance of stimuli and situations, and increased physiological arousal. 

In some instances, people use these powerful words because they have simply become part of our everyday vernacular. However, I believe we need to be aware and pull back on this because where to next? We will have no more words to describe legitimate pain.

It is hard to write on this topic with generalised statements because everyone’s experiences are their own and are nuanced. I am not the guardian of trauma, nor am I here telling people what counts as trauma and what does not. Each experience and event is individual. If you genuinely have the symptoms of trauma, then you are likely to have experienced trauma.

What this article aims to do is to start or add to a conversation that as a society we need to have. To bring life into perspective and to encourage others to try to be less hyperbolic with their language.

Mackenzie’s Mission by Rachael Casella, Allen and Unwin, RRP: $29.99, is available now. For more from Rachel, visit her blog or follow her on Instagram @ mylifeof_love.

Feature Image: Instagram @mylifeof_love.

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