Social Work Trauma
Nancy J. Smyth, Laura Greyber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0229


There are multiple definitions of trauma, many of which have evolved over time as our understanding of this phenomenon has developed and progressed. Generally, all definitions capture some aspect of an event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and that is threatening or damaging in some way. There can be wide variation in peoples’ responses to a traumatic event. While some people may have only a mild reaction, others can experience debilitating symptoms. Likewise, there are various interventions designed to address trauma from early childhood to adulthood. Traumatic experiences are more common than one might think although good worldwide prevalence rates are not available. A national study in the United States found that 51 percent of women and 61 percent of men report experiencing a trauma (according to a narrow definition). While many people think of experiences like combat when they hear the word “trauma,” many experiences can be traumatic, such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, being a victim of a robbery, serious car accidents, death of a loved one, and having a life-threatening illness. In addition, trauma includes natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes, as well as events like terrorist attacks. The common element to any traumatic experience is that the event threatens the safety of oneself or others in some way. Trauma can also impact those who work for or care for individuals who have experienced trauma. This is often referred to as vicarious or secondary trauma.

General Overviews

This section covers references that provide an overview of trauma. Such topics include trauma definitions, types of trauma, prevalence rates of trauma, and developmental stages and the relation to trauma. These works describe the basics to understanding trauma and provide an introduction to trauma assessment and treatment. Van der Kolk 2014 provides an excellent overview on the impact of trauma, including biological perspectives, as well as recovery from trauma. Smyth and Greyber 2013 provides an overview of trauma and trauma-informed practice for adults and children. Two major web resources provide excellent starting places for an overview of trauma and trauma treatment, the National Center for PTSD and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Finally, the additional references for this section are then separated into two major population categories, that is, children and adolescents, and then adults.

  • National Center for PTSD.

    The center promotes research and education, and disseminates materials to aid in the understanding, prevention, and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related sequelae. Includes educational resources for the public and professional resources for practitioners and researchers, including a database of articles on PTSD, as well as assessment and treatment resources.

  • National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

    The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is an organization offering a number of resources ranging from educational and professional opportunities for learning to development, including online courses, referral and linkage warehouse, and assessment database.

  • Smyth, N. J., and L. Greyber. 2013. Trauma-informed practice. In Developing evidence-based generalist practice skills. Edited by Bruce A. Thyer, Catherine N. Dulmus, and Karen M. Sowers, 25–50. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

    This book chapter provides an overview of trauma, definitions of trauma, types of trauma, risk factors, and evidence-based assessment strategies; a wide range of interventions, including trauma-informed care and evidence-based rating systems, are discussed. Lastly, the chapter discusses future issues in trauma-informed practices in addition to DSM-5 changes.

  • van der Kolk, B. A. 2014. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin.

    An excellent overview of trauma, beginning with the recent “rediscovery” of trauma in the mid-20th century. The book covers accessible language, some biological and neuroscience perspectives on the impact of trauma, and also emphasizes the importance of attachment and interpersonal relationships for healing.

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