What is the word or phrase that describes a traumatic event that stops or changes a person’s mode of living?

Something like an illness or something like happened to Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. Or even Tom Hanks’s girlfriend, who was going to school to get her doctorate but “put everything on hold” when Chuck (Tom Hanks’s character) disappears in a plane crash.

I’m almost looking for a psychological term here, and I want to study more about the topic, but I don’t have a term or phrase for it that I can use to research it.

  • 1
    Homes and Rahe, who developed the scale that grades stressful events, actually called these life-changing events.
    – JLG
    Jan 6, 2013 at 16:11
  • @JLG Wow! That's just what I needed! Thank you! Why don't they teach kids about this scale in school? It seems it would make their lives ALOT easier if they understood it.
    – leeand00
    Jan 6, 2013 at 21:42
  • Is there a name for a question that inadvertently embeds the answer? The two most appropriate terms are trauma and life-changing event, both right there in the title. Trauma is relevant in the context from the psychological/psychiatric point of view, while life-changing event is significant from the social psychology aspect.
    – Kris
    Jan 7, 2013 at 14:45

10 Answers 10


An Epochal event is one that has far-reaching implications in one's life. The free dictionary lists momentous as a synonym, so a momentous event is again a happening or a circumstance with the capacity to alter the course of one's life.


You could try one of these:

pivotal point
defining moment
critical juncture


Although it's not used exclusively by psychologists and psychiatrists, a watershed moment is appropriate as well as most of the other suggestions made. If you do a Google search for watershed moment, you'll find psychological usages in many of the hits.

  • 1
    This to me connotes more of a historically important turning point, rather than a personal one (although it could be used for either). Mar 1 at 15:37
  • Turn over point
  • Milestone
  • Key point
  • "Turn over point" ... is that what we call in America a "tipping point"?
    – GEdgar
    Jan 5, 2013 at 21:30

The example you give is not a mild fork-in-the-road, but rather a "calamity" or "catastrophe"


"calamitous event" or "catastrophic event"

From Merriam-Webster.com:


Pronunciation: \kə-ˈla-mə-tē\

Function: noun

Etymology: Middle English calamytey, from Latin calamitat-, calamitas; perhaps akin >to Latin clades destruction Date: 15th century

1 : a state of deep distress or misery caused by major misfortune or loss

2 : a disastrous event marked by great loss and lasting distress and suffering >"calamities of nature", "an economic calamity"


Main Entry: ca·tas·tro·phe

Pronunciation: \kə-ˈtas-trə-(ˌ)fē\

Function: noun

Etymology: Greek katastrophē, from katastrephein to overturn, from kata- + strephein to turn Date: 1540

1 : the final event of the dramatic action especially of a tragedy

2 : a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin

3 a : a violent and sudden change in a feature of the earth b : a violent usually destructive natural event (as a supernova)

4 : utter failure : fiasco — cat·a·stroph·ic \ˌka-tə-ˈsträ-fik\ adjective — cat·a·stroph·i·cal·ly -fi-k(ə-)lē\ adverb


IMO, your use of life-changing experience and trauma are eminently suitable. I think that the medical term is simply psychological trauma. There appear to be different types of psychological trauma including situational trauma, physical trauma, childhood trauma, and possibly others.

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    +1 trauma is itself significant. It is relevant in the context from the psychological/psychiatric point of view, while life-changing event is significant from the social psychology aspect.
    – Kris
    Jan 7, 2013 at 14:41

Since you are looking for a psychological term or a phrase, PTSD it is.

PTSD - Post-traumatic Stress Disorder


Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death.

Another psychological disorder for the same symptoms is Acute Stress Disorder(ASD). The symptoms of ASD are similar to those of PTSD except they occur soon after the experience of a traumatic event and last not more than 4 weeks. http://ptsd.about.com/od/causesanddevelopment/a/acutestress.htm

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    But OP also mentioned about what happened to Chuck's girlfriend in Cast Away, which was in effect due to the stress she was put into, which in all probability could be defined as either Acute Stress Disorder or PTSD(both psychologically).
    – Mohit
    Jan 5, 2013 at 5:28

Earthshaking, or earth-shattering/world-shattering may be the best fit for what you are describing, as they carry a negative connotation, unlike pivotal, consequential, momentous, critical, or another potentially relevant synonym.


The word you are looking for is probably seminal


Seminal figurative.

4.a. Having the properties of seed; containing the possibility of future development. Also, frequently used of books, work, etc., which are highly original and influential; more loosely: important, central to the development or understanding of a subject.

1960 Everything he says is of real value... This is what academics call a seminal book. Guardian 14 October 8/6

1960 Since the war there has been..no seminal poet in the younger generation. 20th Century November 438

It is worth noting that seminal is neutral - fortunate, happy, painful, disastrous - things can be seminal.


Could be 'an epiphany': a sudden realisation, a life-changing experience. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiphany_%28feeling%29

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