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The Different Types of Trauma

Updated: Jul 1


A woman with tears streaming down her face

Trauma affects all types of people and unfortunately is a part of reality for many people. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that two thirds of children experienced at least one traumatic event by age 16. Furthermore, according to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lifetime. Trauma is also considered a risk factor in many behavioral health and substance use disorders. Given that it is likely that you or someone you know have been impacted by trauma, it’s helpful for everyone to have a basic understanding of trauma. To that end, this article gives a brief overview of the three types of trauma and how they differ.


Acute Trauma

Acute trauma results from a single distressing incident that occurs in someone’s life. Examples include a car accident, rape, natural disaster, or a violent event. People may have a range of reactions, including (but not limited to): anxiety, agitation, confusion, numbness, and sadness. The impact can be varied, with some people experiencing more difficulty carrying out their everyday functioning than others in the aftermath. Some develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result.


Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma results from prolonged exposure to a highly stressful or dangerous event. Typically, this trauma has taken place over weeks, months, or years. Some examples are domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and bullying. Children are especially vulnerable to the impact of chronic trauma, which causes a child’s developing brain to be in a heightened activated state for an unnaturally long period of time. Over time, this type of chronic trauma can have a lasting impact on a child’s behavioral pattern, as well as their emotional, mental, and physical well-being. 


Complex Trauma

The third type of trauma is complex trauma. Complex trauma refers to situations where there is exposure to multiple traumatic experiences that are often interpersonal in nature, such as abuse and neglect. It also points to the long-term  and invasive effects of the exposure. Because they often occur early in life, the impact on the child’s development can be profound. 


Trauma impacts people from all walks of life and of all ages. While there are commonalities in the way a trauma affects a person, the way a person copes with the effects of trauma can vary greatly. Some coping styles are more action-oriented, while others are more reflective in nature. Some people may seek help from others in the aftermath, while others don’t. When those affected by trauma do seek help, they may be at different stages of healing. It’s a delicate process involving someone who is in a particularly vulnerable state, and the last thing you want is for your mental health provider to add to the pain with a casual lack of empathy or with an invalidating style. That’s why it’s important that you find a mental health professional who not only understands trauma but will also meet you where you are at in the healing process.


At the same time, it’s important to note that many people find healthy ways to cope with and heal from trauma - and even grow from it. As a result of trauma, people may reevaluate their priorities and renew or redefine their purpose in life. They may increase their commitment to family or loved ones and their community. They may also increase their ability to empathize with the pain of others and deepen their appreciation for what they have. Just because you experience trauma, it does not mean you are doomed to always suffer the consequences. Having witnessed time and time again in my work the resilience of people in the face of adversity, I consider it a true honor when I can be a part of someone’s journey to overcome trauma.



References


Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral 

Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/


Missouri’s Early Care & Education Connections. (n.d.).  Trauma-Informed Care. 


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Complex Trauma. 

lex%20trauma%20describes%20both%20children's,as%20abuse%20or%20profound%2neglect.


The National Council of Mental Wellbeing. (2022, August). How to Manage Trauma. 


Paper Dolls Research Group. (2019). Chronic Trauma: Stories and Suggestions for a Healthier 

Society. Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, September 27). 



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