What is Trauma?

People of all ages, races, and socio-economic status are likely to experience trauma at some point in their lives. While we often think of trauma as associated with violence, it could also refer to natural disasters, personal losses, and other life changing events. It is important to understand the difference between occasional, everyday stressors and significant experiences with the potential for long lasting negative impacts.

Although an individual’s experience of trauma is unique, exposure to trauma is related to higher risk of physical and mental health problems across the lifespan. Trauma during childhood can have especially significant impacts because they occur while the brain, body, psychology, and social relationships are under development. The ability to recover from trauma depends upon strengths, resilience, and a caring and supportive environment. For some, counseling or other professional treatment may be needed in order to heal.

The 3 E’s of Trauma:

  • Exposure to an event, series of events, or set of circumstances
  • The event(s) is experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening
  • Exposure frequently results in lasting effects on health and wellbeing

It is important to recognize that trauma happens at the community and societal levels and these also must be addressed.

Examples of these adverse conditions include:

  • Poverty and lack of economic opportunities
  • Racism and other forms of historical trauma
  • Structural injustice

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) refer to events that can happen before the age of 18 which increase the risk for health and social problems across the lifespan.

A study jointly supported by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente (1995 to 1997) found that:

  • ACEs are common. About two-thirds of the 17,000 people surveyed said they had experienced at least one of the 10 ACEs listed above.1
  • Having more than one ACE is common. Three out of four people who experience at least one ACE experience two or more.
  • People who experience ACEs are more likely to have behavioral and physical health problems. The risk increases with the number of ACEs experienced.2


Because of their prevalence and impact, ACEs constitute a significant public health issue.

Chronic exposure to ACEs can cause “toxic stress” which negatively impacts children’s healthy brain development with long-term consequences for learning, behavior, physical and mental health. The good news is that even if we cannot prevent ACEs, we can help to reduce the impact of toxic stress by making sure that children have safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments.

The Role of Resilience

Resilience lessens the impact of adversity and allows people who experience it to “bounce back.” For some, resilience is an inherent personal characteristic. But developing resilience is also a process of acquiring a set of skills to help weather adversities faced at the individual, family, community, and society levels. Some people who may appear to have “moved on” may still be experiencing difficult memories, disruption in functioning and relationships, or other symptoms. Seeking help, such as therapy or support groups, may be necessary to building resilience.

Safe, supportive, and inclusive environments foster resilience. Although it is essential at the personal level, it is not enough. Advocacy and policy are necessary to reduce poverty, racism, and other historical and structural barriers to equality.

As a backbone organization, Trauma Matters Delaware advocates for research on trauma, the recognition of its impact, and the adoption of trauma informed practices and policies.

What is Trauma Informed Care?

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1 The original ACEs study was based on the list of 10 adverse conditions that are usually associated with a child’s home and family life, highlighted in the chart above. However, the study of ACEs has evolved to include social and environmental adversities, such as exposure to community violence, poverty, and racism. The list of ACEs may vary across research efforts and result in differences in the rates of ACEs reported.
2 Brown DW, Anda RF, Tiemeier H, Felitti VJ, Edwards VJ, Croft JB, Giles WH. Adverse childhood experiences and the risk of premature mortality. Am J Prev Med. 2009 Nov;37(5):389-96. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2009.06.021. PMID: 19840693.