• Barbara Wade Social worker in private practice and doctoral student, University of South Africa.
  • Rinie Schenck Social Work, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.


Exposure to trauma has always been part of human existence (Marsella, Friedman & Spain, 1996). Extreme stress has been depicted by authors throughout the ages. In Homer’s Odyssey (4 000 years ago) and Shakespeare’s Henry VI (1591), for example, portray post-traumatic stress reactions to war (Wade, 2009). In 1993 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined trauma in the Third Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM III) as a catastrophic stressor that would evoke significant symptoms of stress in most people. Trauma was thought to be “a rare and overwhelming event, generally outside the range of usual human experiences” (APA, 2000:467). Events that fitted this definition of trauma included rape, assault, incarceration, military combat, accidents and domestic violence. After many debates about the concept of trauma, the definition was changed in the DSM IV to focus not on the event(cause) itself, but on the person’s response(effect) to the event or the symptoms the person showed after the event (APA, 2000; Wade, 2009). The APA acknowledged that people give different meanings to events and therefore not all seemingly traumatic events are experienced as traumatic by all people. The DSM IV constructed criteria or symptoms for the condition “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) to describe the condition in the following way: “The person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self and others” (APA, 2000:467). This definition excludes other events that are not life threatening. The person’s symptoms, according the DSM IV, could include intense fear, helplessness or horror (APA, 2000:467). This would imply that events such as the destruction of one’s home, or a threat to life, would qualify as being traumatic, but divorce or illness would not qualify if physical threats were not present (Norris, 1992).


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