Trauma describes the response a person experiences following an unexpected, terrible event. These experiences, referred to as traumatic events, include a variety of high-stress things like active war combat, assault, violence, natural disasters, or accidents. Trauma leads to many physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms.
Trauma responses vary significantly. Some have very short-lived symptoms while others develop pervasive disorders as a result. Some factors may make a person predisposed to long-term trauma responses. Additionally, ongoing traumatic experiences that last months or years are likely to cause a more detrimental reaction.
What exactly is trauma and what types of trauma exist? What do symptoms of trauma look like? How do people react to trauma and how can you treat it? Continue reading to learn more about trauma, its impact on a person, and how to find help if you’re experiencing it.
What Defines Trauma?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” It describes the physical and psychological reactions to any experience that a person feels threatened or harmed, physically or emotionally.
Trauma includes a wide range of emotions and responses depending on the individual and their particular experience, both immediately afterward and also over time. People who experience trauma often feel shocked, helpless, and overwhelmed. They tend to have a hard time accepting and working through the experience. Some also experience physical symptoms of trauma.
Trauma responses can have both short-lived effects and long-term impacts depending on the person. Symptoms that persist with little or no decrease in intensity may mean you developed a trauma-related mental health disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Types of Trauma
Not all trauma responses are the same. Some people experience few to no symptoms after an extreme event while others develop serious, pervasive reactions. Since there is such a range of responses to traumatic events, trauma is divided into three main categories: acute trauma, chronic trauma, and complex trauma.
Acute trauma describes reactions to a single event in a person’s life. This could be something like a natural disaster, an accident, theft, a one-off event of abuse or assault, or witnessing a violent or traumatic event. These individual experiences are still so impactful that they cause either a short-term or long-term impact. Some believe acute trauma isn’t as serious as other forms of trauma because it’s only one event. In reality, these single-event experiences can cause incredible, ongoing harm.
Chronic trauma refers to responses caused by multiple or ongoing traumatic events that happen over time. This could mean someone who experiences numerous but separate traumatic experiences, or someone who goes through a prolonged traumatic experience. Examples of chronic trauma include exposure to combat or war, childhood neglect or abuse, sexual abuse, or domestic violence. Chronic trauma often causes severe responses, both physical and psychological.
Complex trauma is the result of experiencing numerous and varied traumatic events, typically as part of an interpersonal relationship. It usually refers to trauma that occurs during childhood, particularly neglect, child abuse, domestic or familial violence, community violence, adverse experiences, sexual exploitation, or trafficking, or any combination of these experiences. Complex trauma is an extensive and complicated condition usually resulting in extreme mental health and behavioral problems. These symptoms do not tend to match the symptoms of PTSD but are often worse than those of PTSD.