How to Define Trauma for EMDR

By D Sharon Pruitt [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The question comes up often: what is trauma? Most therapists recognize trauma from the DSM-V definition:

That a person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which the person experienced or witnessed or was confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. The person experienced feelings of intense helplessness, fear, or horror.

When I learned EMDR, I learned a broader definition of trauma, which changed how I approached therapy with my clients. Trauma was defined as any past experience that one perceives as negative and that negatively impacts your present life. It creates extreme stress in the body and mind.

Traumas can be perceived as horrific, helpless to prevent, and threatening to either your survival or the survival of others or it can be when something happens to you large or small, that leaves you feeling distress and you are unable to process it for some reason. The effects can be long lasting and create distressing symptoms. All trauma manifests in physical and/or sexual and/or psychological symptoms, which can eventually lead to PTSD.

This new definition was much broader and included things that people experienced as disturbing in their lives. If you ask a person “Is there anything that has happened to you that you still find disturbing?” Most people will answer, “Yes.” If you ask people have you experienced any trauma? The answer may be, “No.”

With this broader definition, EMDR can be applied to a variety of issues that are causing distress to a client.

Here is a list of symptoms that can occur from experiencing trauma or life disturbing events:

  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Experience sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
  • Find yourself hyper vigilant (feeling constantly on-guard)
  • Over-react to noises or other environmental cues that didn’t bother you before
  • Find yourself irritable, angry and experiencing outbursts
  • Have nightmares
  • Have recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event
  • Act or feel as if the experience is happening again in the present
  • Experience intense psychological distress and/or physiological arousal when exposed to (internal or external) stimuli that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event
  • Experience flashbacks (suddenly feeling as though the event is happening in the present)
  • Experience sleep problems; difficulty falling or staying asleep (often to avoid nightmares associated with the event)
  • Attempt to avoid thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event
  • Attempt to avoid activities or situations that evoke memories of the traumatic event
  • Find yourself unable to recall an important aspect of the traumatic event
  • Feel detached or estranged from others and your daily life
  • Sense you’re unable to feel as you once did; you feel numb or spaced out, unable to care or to love
  • Feel less interest and pleasure in activities
  • Feel a sense of foreboding and anticipate a limited future; you don’t expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a long life

EMDR therapists listen for symptoms, issues, or problems that clients may be experiencing, and apply EMDR in way that can help the person be at peace with the past, empowered in the present, and able to make choices in the future.