Paper Birds Dictionary

The Paper Birds Dictionary

While still being on the scientific and societal precipice of understanding mental health, certain concepts or terminology can be difficult to comprehend. Below, you can find a list of different terms related to (and referenced in) Paper Birds, complete with definitions, links to outside sources and visual representations in the form of illustrations.


Trauma is an experience that exceeds our ability to cope and, because of this, is subjective. But in more recent years, trauma has begun to be divided up into two categories: big T’s and little t’s.

Big T’s are comprised of intensely distressing (and sometimes life-threating) events universally considered to be traumatic, such as natural disasters, the death of a loved one, assault or war. Little t’s are distressing events perceived as traumatic by the individual, such as the death of a pet, a breakup, or a non-life-threating injury.

Recovered Memories

Due to the way trauma is stored, it’s not uncommon for survivors to lose all or partial memory of the event.

Most often associated with victims of childhood physical or sexual abuse, recovered memories (sometimes referred to as repressed memories) are memories of the trauma that have been, for a period of time, unable to be retrieved by the conscious mind.


Transference is an unintentional projection of the past onto people or situations in the present, like using an outdated map.

When someone is experiencing transference, they will direct feelings or desires related to an important figure in their life–such as a parent-towards someone who is not that person.

In respect to Paper Birds, Alli experiences transference with her nieces, specifically her oldest niece, Evelyn, whom she holds a special bond with. This shows up in her nightmares of Evelyn getting hurt and the fear that something bad is going to happen to her. You can find a bite from our documentary discussing transference here.


Dissociation is, at its core, a disconnect and it exists on a spectrum. In the context of trauma, it’s an involuntarily response to highly stressful situations or reminders of a past trauma. People often report feeling disconnected to reality, their surroundings or even themselves.

Often disassociation is divided into two subcategories: depersonalization and derealization, which will be expanded upon below.


A form of dissociation, depersonalization can be thought of as a disconnection from the self.

Those experiencing depersonalization will often describe the experience like watching yourself as an actor in a movie, feeling robotic or having an out-of-body experience. Sometimes, people may feel like their limbs are distorted or like their head is “wrapped in cotton”. It’s not uncommon for people to also feel disconnected from their thoughts, memories or even feelings, like they’re not their own.


Another form of dissociation, derealization can be thought of as a disconnection from the world around you.

More often than not, someone experiencing derealization will be aware of the situation, yet still struggles to feel connected to what is happening around them, as if it’s another world. Derealization can be fleeting, lasting a few minutes or it can be prolonged and reoccurring–a sign of a possible underlying psychiatric disorder.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may develop after witnessing or living through a traumatic event.

While most people will experience temporary disturbances after living through trauma, the majority will not go on to develop PTSD. Symptoms of the disorder generally surface within three months of the event; however, PTSD can also develop years or even decades after the trauma occurred. Symptoms are split up into four categories: intrusion, avoidance, arousal and alterations in cognition in mood. For PTSD to be diagnosed, patients must exhibit…

  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms
  • At least one re-experiencing symptom

Below, you can find more information about each of these categories.


Avoidance is born out of the fear of retraumtization.

Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include evading people, places, activities, objects and situations that may act as reminders of the event. On a more internal scale, people may try to shy away from remembering or thinking about the traumatic event, or refrain from talking about it with others, including how they may feel. While avoidance may be effective short-term, the practice often causes more problems down the line.

Alterations in Cognition & Mood

Negative alterations in cognition and mood often mimic symptoms of depression.

Someone who develops PTSD may see a negative shift in the way they view the world or those around them. Them may struggle to trust others or believe the world is unsafe, even after the threat has passed. These negative thoughts can also be directed inwards, showing up in the form of self blame or hatred. They also may experience a disinterest in things they used to enjoy, feel detached from those around them and struggle to feel positive emotions.

Alterations in Arousal & Activity

Arousal and reactive symptoms are a result of your body being in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’, and can present in a variety of ways. Hyperarousal may look like an inability to focus, paranoia, irritability, being easily startled or feeling constantly ‘on edge’.

Apart from waking life, arousal symptoms can also present in the form of sleeping problems. Those with PTSD tend to struggle to fall or stay asleep. Rest is when the body ‘resets’, so lack of sleep often amplifies already present feelings of tension.


Re-experiencing is exactly how it sounds: reliving the traumatic event in some way.

Arguably the two most notable forms in which people with PTSD re-experience the trauma is through nightmares and flashbacks (the latter will be discussed more in depth below). However, re-experiencing can also manifest itself in the way of intrusive thoughts, such as involuntarily replaying memories of the event in their head.


Flashbacks fall under the category of re-experiencing, and while likely the most notorious symptom of PTSD, not everyone with the disorder has flashbacks.

During a flashback, your body is re-experiencing the trauma as if it’s happening in real time. Because of the nature of the word, there’a a misconception that flashbacks consist of visually replaying the trauma in your mind. However, many flashbacks don’t have visual components. Instead–or in conjunction with–they may experience things like heart palpitations, perspiration and trembling.