While more people are starting to recognize the effects of trauma, few people are aware of the differences between different types of trauma. Trauma’s impact can be brief, long, intense, or only a minor nuisance, and everyone experiences the effects of trauma differently.
Learning about the different types of trauma can help people who have been through a traumatic experience understand their reactions and recognize what kind of support they need to heal.
Understanding the Different Types of Trauma
While there are more than just three different types of trauma, generally, we can categorize trauma in three different ways. These three categories are:
- Acute trauma
- Chronic trauma
- Complex trauma
It’s important to note that the three types of trauma refer solely to the traumatic experiences rather than a person’s trauma response.
Categorizing the type of trauma helps determine the appropriate response. When we’re more aware of our needs, we can get the right tools and medicine needed for healing.
If someone breaks their ankle but doesn’t realize the severity of their injury, they might mistake it for a sprain. The break will take longer to heal without a cast, and they may further damage the bones and connective tissues in the ankle. However, if they seek medical care and get the proper diagnosis, they can get the care they need to recover entirely.
Trauma is similar: knowing the type of trauma helps us identify the proper support. Let’s take a closer look at the three different types of trauma.
1. Acute Trauma
Acute trauma is the most basic form of trauma: it refers to a single, isolated traumatic experience. Any number of events could qualify as acute trauma, including:
- A motor vehicle accident
- A life-threatening situation
- Loss of a loved one
- Natural disasters
- Sexual assault or rape
- A major injury
These extreme situations can have a profound impact on a person. People often feel shocked, numb, or in disbelief in the short term. They may experience intense grief, anger, confusion, or a blunted affect, which means they have difficulty expressing emotions.
Some other symptoms of acute trauma include:
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Changes in hygiene
- Loss of focus or complete inability to focus
- Acting suspicious of others or more secretive; seemingly inexplicable personality changes
- Feeling confused, irritated, or disconnected (dissociation)
- Struggling with insomnia or waking up in the middle of the night
These reactions and symptoms are the mind’s way of protecting somebody who has experienced acute trauma from further harm; it’s an adaptive response.
While many people who experience acute trauma recover quickly and never go on to receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a single traumatic event can sometimes affect people for months, years, or even decades. When trauma symptoms persist for more than a month and begin to cause impairment in everyday functioning, this may be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.
2. Chronic Trauma
Chronic trauma happens when people experience similar traumatic events over and over again. Just like with acute trauma, chronic trauma survivors can react to these events differently.
Some of the most common causes of chronic trauma include:
- Childhood abuse
- Abusive relationships
- Military combat
- Toxic friendships
- Chronic illness
Unlike acute trauma, where someone experiences an isolated incident, chronic trauma survivors endure the same trauma over and over. As such, they never get a chance to process the situation thoroughly and are caught in a perpetual cycle of traumatic experiences.
3. Complex Trauma
Complex trauma is the most sweeping and wide-reaching form of trauma. Unlike chronic trauma and acute trauma, complex trauma is a term that describes both the traumatic events themselves and a person’s responses to that trauma. Complex trauma often overlaps with other co-occurring disorders and stressors.
For example, a person who grew up in an abusive household may have experienced chronic trauma as a child. As an adult, they may develop mental health disorders, such as anxiety, PTSD, or depression. Their adult relationships may similarly be abusive, and these interweaving factors color their reactions to traumatic events.
The layers of multiple traumatic experiences and interpersonal conflicts feed off each other in a negative downward spiral and work together to form a clear case of complex trauma. The danger of complex trauma is that a person’s response to traumatic events, such as depression, emotional outbursts, or flashbacks, can lead to further traumatization.
Treating complex trauma is still possible, and many people can recover if they receive targeted mental health treatment from professionals.
What Kind of Trauma Causes PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an adaptation that occurs in response to different types of trauma. After experiencing acute, chronic, or complex trauma, people may feel like they are living in a hostile world, and their behavior changes accordingly. They are left constantly feeling on edge and experience intrusive symptoms that are out of their control.
The symptoms of PTSD include:
- Avoidance of situations that trigger memories of traumatic events
- Intrusive memories of traumatic events
- Emotional detachment
- Sudden mood swings
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must persist for longer than a month. Typically, people begin to experience PTSD symptoms within three months of the initial traumatic event, though it is possible for people to have a delayed onset of PTSD.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:
- Combat exposure
- Childhood physical abuse
- Sexual violence
- Physical assault
- Being threatened with a weapon
- An accident
All three types of trauma can cause someone to develop trauma-related disorders such as PTSD. Still, the likelihood of a PTSD diagnosis isn’t solely based on the traumatic experience alone; our personal history and the support we receive after trauma often influence its long-term impacts.
Why Some People Develop PTSD and Others Don’t
Many people can live through multiple traumatic events without experiencing long-term symptoms, while others can develop PTSD after a single traumatic event. Researchers believe this is due to varying resilience factors and risk factors.
Resilience is a term that psychologists use to describe a person’s ability to adapt successfully to difficult experiences. Multiple actions and behaviors contribute to resilience, including:
- Seeking support from family, friends, co-workers, or support groups
- Having healthy coping strategies to deal with difficult experiences
- Learning to accept their own actions in response to trauma
- Being prepared for traumatic events before they occur
Having these resiliency factors in place and acting on them shortly after a traumatic event may help prevent the development of PTSD.
On the other hand, certain risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of someone developing PTSD; personal experiences from before the traumatic event and specific details of the traumatic events themselves play a role.
A few risk factors for developing PTSD include:
- Feeling as if your own life was in danger during the traumatic event
- Not having anyone to talk to about the traumatic event
- The severity of the traumatic event
- Repeated instances of trauma
- Having a family history of mental illness or addiction
Any of these factors can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event.
Treating Different Types of Trauma
The intensity of treatment required can vary significantly depending on the kind of trauma you’ve experienced and how long you’ve dealt with symptoms.
In clinical settings, providers treat PTSD through methods such as:
- Exposure Therapy: A style of therapy that helps people to reintegrate and reprocess traumatic experiences in a safe way
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): A technique that helps break the mind-body connection of trauma, using specialized tools and working with an individual therapist
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A therapy that focuses on changing patterns of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy: a specialized therapy that incorporates spirituality, emotional intelligence, distress tolerance, and relationship skills
- Stellate Ganglion Block: an injection of a local anesthetic into a nerve bundle in the neck connected to the fight or flight system
- Ketamine-Assisted Therapy: when administered by a healthcare provider, ketamine (a psychedelic medication) helps you get to the root of trauma, stress, and anxiety, revive essential brain connections, and make more progress in therapy
- Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: a noninvasive procedure that saturates the body with oxygen to stimulate the immune system and alleviate inflammation
- Somatic Experiencing: a body-oriented approach to trauma therapy that focuses on the physiological response to a traumatic memory
In some cases, doctors may prescribe medications to help alleviate some of the symptoms of PTSD. Starting treatment at a mental health facility can connect you with therapists and psychiatrists alike, helping to ensure you have the best chances of recovery.
How to Heal From Trauma
You may not need specialized treatment if you’re dealing with acute trauma and have only experienced symptoms for a week or two. Many people recover from traumatic events within a few weeks without showing any lingering symptoms.
Still, experiencing a traumatic event can be incredibly difficult, and talking with a mental health professional can ensure that you stay on the right track and don’t go on to develop PTSD.
If you have experienced chronic trauma or complex trauma, it is essential that you reach out to mental health professionals. These types of trauma are highly associated with PTSD.
If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North helps our clients overcome traumatic events, reach out to our team via the live chat function, complete our online contact form, or call us at 855.235.9792 to hear more about our intensive trauma therapy options.
- Voges, Marcia A, and David M Romney. “Risk and resiliency factors in posttraumatic stress disorder.” Annals of general hospital psychiatry vol. 2,1 4. 1 May. 2003, doi:10.1186/1475-2832-2-4
- “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.
- “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 6 July 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967.