Trauma is the emotional response to a severely stressful or frightening event. Abuse, sexual assault, a severe car accident, or a natural disaster can all trigger the trauma response.
An estimated 70% of U.S. adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. Many experience symptoms that impact their lives in significant ways.
Understanding the types of emotional trauma is the first step to addressing this unseen epidemic.
Announcement. Trauma can come in many forms, and its effects can be far-reaching. In this article, we explore the different types of trauma, along with their causes, symptoms, treatment options, and impact on everyday life.
Understanding the Spectrum of Trauma
There are a few main types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex. Other types of trauma also exist and often have more specific causes.
Having a deeper understanding of the spectrum of trauma can help you seek help or provide support for a loved one.
1. Acute Trauma
Acute trauma is trauma caused by a single event that was so overwhelming, the body’s automatic nervous system becomes stuck in its threat response.
When faced with a perceived threat, the automatic nervous system is supposed to react with a threat response. However, for some individuals, this response is maladaptive or dysfunctional.
Once the threat has passed, the automatic nervous system should return to normal. For individuals with maladaptive or dysfunctional systems, the threat response persists. The brain and body believe the threat is still present.
Causes of Acute Trauma
Acute trauma can be caused by any single traumatic event where the person’s life is or is perceived to be in danger.
A variety of events can trigger this response, including:
- Military combat
- Sexual assault or abuse
- Physical abuse
- Car accidents
- The sudden death of a loved one
- Natural disaster
- Being diagnosed with a terminal illness
Anyone can become a victim of acute trauma, but some individuals are more likely than others to develop acute trauma. Risk factors include:
- Proximity to the event
- Support network or availability of resources after the event
- History of mental illness
- Previous stressors
Symptoms of acute trauma typically emerge within four weeks of the triggering event. If left unresolved, the condition can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Symptoms of this type of trauma include:
- Severe anxiety
- Avoidance behaviors
- Unpredictable or explosive behavior
- Substance abuse
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Re-experiencing the event
Acute trauma can be challenging to treat. Many patients find it extremely difficult to move on from the event, even if they have a strong desire to do so.
However, treatment is possible, and many patients can manage or even overcome their symptoms.
Treatment typically involves a combination of:
- Self-care or lifestyle changes
Medication may be used to treat certain symptoms, such as anxiety, insomnia or depression. However, it is typically not used as a first-line treatment for this kind of trauma.
Psychotherapy typically comes in the form of trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
2. Chronic Trauma
Chronic trauma refers to PTSD. Unlike acute trauma, which is related to a single stressful event, chronic trauma occurs after repeated and prolonged exposure to traumatic events.
If acute trauma is left untreated, it can develop into chronic trauma.
In the case of chronic trauma, the threat cannot be fought off or escaped from. Childhood abuse is an example of this type of trauma. The child cannot run away from or fend off their abuser, so they are exposed to trauma on a regular basis.
Eventually, the nervous system triggers the freeze response, which then leads to an emotional and psychological shutdown. This response is designed to keep the psyche from becoming too overwhelmed.
Survivors of chronic trauma find that their nervous system is stuck in a perpetual state of fear. Even safe environments and people become perceived threats.
Causes of Chronic Trauma
Chronic trauma is caused by a series of traumatic events. Repeated exposure to these events leads to the development of this type of trauma. These events can include:
- Repeated child abuse
- Repeated sexual abuse
- Prolonged exposure to combat or war
- Repeated natural disasters
- Ongoing domestic violence
Chronic trauma can cause severe symptoms. For some individuals, symptoms can take years to develop. For others, the effects begin to surface within weeks.
Symptoms of chronic trauma can include:
- Avoidant behaviors, such as social isolation or substance abuse
- Impaired memories
Chronic trauma can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, including their work life, school performance, personal relationships, and more.
Professional treatment can help sufferers restore their lives. Treatment can include a combination of:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT)
- Somatic Experiencing
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Treatments such as Somatic Experiencing and EMDR help with the regulation of the nervous system and make it possible for the patient to begin exploring and addressing their trauma. TFCBT and medication can help patients recover and reduce their symptoms.
3. Complex Trauma
Complex trauma has a significant impact on the nervous system and is often referred to as complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD. The condition impacts more than 3% of the U.S. population alone.
Many individuals with complex trauma experience “emotional flashbacks,” which cause them to have the same intense feelings they felt while the traumatic event was taking place.
For survivors, the trauma of the past continues to live on in the present moment.
Causes of Complex Trauma
Complex trauma is caused by repeated exposure to severely traumatic events, such as:
- Childhood abuse, abandonment, or neglect
- Being kidnapped, tortured, or forced into slavery
- Repeated witnessing of abuse or violence
- Being a prisoner of war
- Being a victim of sex trafficking
Complex trauma can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, making it difficult to maintain normal routines and relationships. Symptoms include those that are experienced chronic trauma in addition to:
- Difficulty controlling your emotions
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame
- Trouble keeping friends or romantic partners
- Difficulty connecting with other people
Healing from complex trauma can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. With professional treatment, there is always hope.
Effective therapies for this type of trauma include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Somatic Experiencing
4. Other Types of Trauma
Acute, chronic, and complex trauma are the three main trauma types, but there are also other types of traumas that you may experience, such as:
- Secondary and Vicarious Trauma: These are a type of indirect trauma that can arise after being exposed to troubling or disturbing stories and images second-hand.
- Developmental Trauma: This type of trauma occurs in the first years of life. The brain is designed to develop from the bottom to the top, but when exposed to repeatedly stressful situations, brain development is disturbed.
Coping With Different Types of Trauma
Acute trauma is caused by a single traumatic event, while chronic and complex trauma is caused by repeated exposure to traumatic incidents. Each type of trauma is different in its own way, but they all have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.
Treatment can help trauma survivors restore their lives and build happier, healthier new ones.
Are you wondering, “What type of trauma do I have?” The best way to find out and address the issue is to seek professional help.