It’s not a dumb question!
For PTSD, the criteria for trauma is:
The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (one required)
- Direct exposure.
- Witnessing, in person.
- Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
- Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, collecting body parts; professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures.
Of course, trauma is more complicated than that and there are lots of problems with our current diagnostic model. Some people may be traumatized by events that don’t meet these criteria, and some are not traumatized by events that do. It’s important to give significance and respect to what trauma is, so that not every negative event is a trauma. For example, it drives me nuts when people say “I was so traumatized” when a restaurant is out of ranch dressing or a professor won’t give them an extension for their paper. But we also have to understand that trauma is complex and that people respond differently to events in their lives, so being in a car accident may be traumatizing for one person but not for another. Some of that has to do with whether a person feels like their life, health, or bodily integrity has been threatened. Due to our histories and the way our brains work, some people’s fight-or-flight reflex among other things may be much more quickly and strongly activated, causing more fear during an event like that. I hope that helps!