1. Traumatic Event Vs. Traumatic Effect
The term "trauma" is used in two distinct ways that in recent parlance have been confused. "Trauma" can refer to a traumatic event or circumstance and it can refer to a traumatic response or effect (it's the latter that I will be referring to as "trauma"). It is important to distinguish these two because, contrary to the writings of many recent trauma theorists, traumatic circumstances do not always lead to traumatic effect, and calling them each a "trauma" can cause people to believe that they do.
A traumatic circumstance can be defined, in part, as an overwhelming physical, emotional, social experience - a shock or disaster, acute or chronic, which tears through or tears apart the ego's protective organizational fabric. This organizational fabric is woven from many threads. An individual's protective matrix includes the physical body, the social support network, individual and social customs and belief systems. This organization or "ego" (individual and social) is formed of beliefs and practices that allow for a measure of predictability, social order, and means to ensure or restore safety and/or stability. Some circumstances are quite terrible, but research shows that if they are predictable and find a place within individual and cultural meaning systems, the incidence of trauma, which follows, is relatively low. On the other hand, circumstances which may not cause extreme damage, but which undermine the organizational fabric, can lead to traumatic reactions.
For example, here in New York City, following the September 11th massacre, the appearance of anthrax was extremely distressing, raising the anxiety levels considerably, and returning people to the feelings of helplessness and fear which followed the attack. However, the crash of a jetliner in the city had no such effect for those not on the scene, because, even though there were many more fatalities than had been caused by anthrax, the plane crash, though terrible, was an event which was understandable within our organizational fabric. Thus, it is not the traumatic event per se, but the event in its context and its meaning, that leads or does not lead to trauma.
As Freud and Breuer pointed out in 1893, trauma is produced when there are traumatic circumstances and where there is no opportunity to react to those circumstances:
The fading of a [traumatic] memory or the losing of its affect depends on various factors. The most important of these is whether there has been an energetic reaction to the event that provokes an affect. By "reaction" we here understand the whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes - from tears to acts of revenge - in which, as experience shows us, the affects are discharged. If this reaction takes place with sufficient intensity [as for instance, with revenge] a great part of the affect disappears as a result . . . (1893, 8).
Taking this further, it might be said that trauma results when there is a tearing of the integrity of the psycho-physiological or psychosocial system - and where that system cannot be psychically restored and/or energetically reasserted. But where strong reaction is possible, or where a belief system is reasserted, trauma may well be averted.
Thus one might say that to avoid trauma a person must react to the traumatic circumstance in an active way; a way in which previously held meanings are reasserted, energies are discharged, the social fabric rewoven and belief systems and practices are reinforced.