How is Trauma Different from Stress?
Now let's discuss some other terms that usually come up when we talk about trauma. Let's begin with stress. Here is a definition of stress offered by the American Psychological Association:
"Stress is the pattern of specific and nonspecific responses an organism makes to stimulus events that disturb its equilibrium and tax or exceed its ability to cope."
In other words, stress is anything life brings our way that has the potential to upset our balance. Thus, traumatic experiences are always stressful, but stressors are not always traumatic.
Likewise, stress is not always harmful while trauma nearly always is. For example, some people perform better at school or at work given a bit of stress such as a rapidly approaching deadline. As respected surgeon named Stanley J. Sarnoff, M.D. (1963) taught throughout his stellar career: "If you had to define stress, it would not be far off if you said it was the process of living. The process of living is the process of having stress imposed on you and reacting to it" (p.100).
People are negatively affected by stress when they have not developed a stable set of strategies for coping with stressors. Many teachers of mindfulness meditation suggest that stress is an inevitable part of the human experience. However, when we learn to respond to stress instead of reacting to it, we are less likely to be plagued by problematic symptoms. For individuals with unhealed emotional traumas, what might seem like mild ordinary stressors of everyday life, may bring about an avalanche of emotions and functional impairment because their coping resources are already maxed out dealing with the invisible emotional wounds of trauma.