Study: How the average adult defines ‘trauma’

Published April 20, 2023


Mickey Sperlich

Mickey Sperlich.

How does the average person define trauma?

That's the question Mickey Sperlich, PhD, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, set out to answer in her new study. Congratulations to Sperlich and her colleagues on the publication of their paper, "How adults from the general population define trauma: Highlighting a need for a broader and more inclusive understanding," in Traumatology. 

Lisa S. Panisch, PhD, assistant professor at Wayne State University, led the project with Sperlich and UB School of Social Work alumna Nicole Fava, PhD ’13, MSW ’08, assistant professor at Florida International University, as co-authors.


There is an increasing awareness of trauma and its consequences within society. Mental health clinicians and clients must have a shared understanding of the term “trauma” to ensure effective assessment and treatment.

Although existing research examines narratives and expressions of trauma, little is known about how adults define and conceptualize the term “trauma.” Our study addresses this gap by providing a thematic analysis of how adults from the general population responded when asked to define the term “trauma.”

The main themes that emerged from our analysis were event, reaction, reaction and event with event emphasized, reaction and event with reaction emphasized, long-lasting impact and injury. The majority of respondents provided definitions with a sole or primary focus on traumatic events, as opposed to reactions to trauma, and this pattern held when events and reactions were examined in the context of their long-lasting impact.

Our findings underscore the benefits of having a broader and more inclusive definition of trauma that aligns with one’s personal experiences, which we discuss with respect to clinical, trauma-related implications for assessment, diagnosis and treatment.