Recovery from Financial Trauma

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When you hear the word "trauma," what comes to mind? The death of a loved one, severe injury or illness, a natural disaster, physical or sexual abuse, wartime combat? These are the things that I once thought of as trauma.

What I’ve since learned is that events like these are descriptions of extreme trauma, not necessarily trauma. The word "trauma" is simply the Greek term for "wound." According to Mirriam-Webster, originally the Greeks used the word for physical injuries. Now it is commonly used to describe emotional injuries as well.

A traumatic event can be both physical and emotional. A physical injury can result in lingering psychological symptoms even after someone recovers bodily. Most of us have become familiar with the term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Its symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and recurring nightmares, can stem from an original trauma that is either physical or emotional.

However, not all trauma is inherently extreme or considered a traumatic event. Less extreme trauma can include shock, upheaval, distress, chronic stress, physical or emotional pain, grief, or heartache from a variety of sources and life experiences. By this standard, there isn’t a human past the age of two that hasn’t experienced trauma.

Any trauma, extreme or not, can be emotionally debilitating if it overwhelms a person. A chronic series of less extreme traumas can lead to experiencing the same symptoms as acute one-time traumatic events. The impact of being exposed to multiple or prolonged stresses is called complex trauma. Examples can include repeated incidences of stress, emotional abuse or neglect, criticism, chaotic family dynamics, or relatively minor chronic illness such as asthma or significant allergies.

What does trauma have to do with money? Because money is so integral to all aspects of our lives, distressing or disturbing financial experiences can overwhelm someone and become traumatic events. They can be the cause of PTSD or complex trauma.

Dr. Galen Buckwalter, a research psychologist, defines Financial PTSD as "the physical, emotional, and cognitive deficits people experience when they cannot cope with either abrupt financial loss or the chronic stress of having inadequate financial resources."

While both circumstances certainly qualify as financial trauma, this definition is quite narrow. A wide variety of financial events and circumstances, even ones that could appear insignificant to others, might be traumatic for the person involved.