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Understanding the Three Types of Trauma

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms someone’s ability to cope with the associated emotions and experiences. Trauma’s impact can be brief, long, intense, or a minor annoyance, but it has profound and lasting effects on a person’s mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual well-being. Trauma is not limited to a single event; it can encompass a range of experiences and reactions that differ in duration and complexity.

While more people are beginning to recognize the effects of trauma, few people are aware of the differences between types of trauma. Three primary types of trauma are recognized within the field of psychology:

  • Acute Trauma
  • Chronic Trauma
  • Complex Trauma

Each type has distinct characteristics, impacts, and implications for an individual’s overall functioning and recovery. Determining the kind of trauma helps influence the appropriate response. Being more aware of our needs helps us get the tools needed for healing.

Before we take a closer look at the types of trauma, it is crucial to note that we are discussing traumatic experiences rather than someone’s trauma response.

1. Acute Trauma

Acute trauma is the most basic form of trauma and usually refers to a single, isolated traumatic experience that occurs suddenly and is often intense. Examples include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Physical assaults
  • Sexual assault or rape
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Medical emergencies
  • Sudden loss of a loved one

These situations can have a profound impact on a person. This type of trauma is typically time-limited, with clear beginning and end points. The emotional response to acute trauma is often characterized by shock, fear, and anxiety, or they may struggle to express their emotions.

Acute trauma may trigger a trauma response, especially “fight to flight”, activating the sympathetic nervous system and flooding the body with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Someone may also experience physical reactions like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension. These are common during and immediately following the traumatic event. Additionally, individuals may experience symptoms of dissociation, where they feel disconnected from their bodies or emotions to cope with the overwhelming experience.

The emotional impact of acute trauma can be overwhelming, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Acting suspicious or secretive
  • Changes in hygiene
  • Loss of focus

These symptoms are the mind’s way of protecting someone who has experienced acute trauma from further harm. While many people recover from acute trauma quickly and never go on to receive a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), when symptoms persist for more than a month beyond the immediate aftermath of the trauma and begin to cause impairment in everyday functioning, it might be a sign of PTSD. Again, it’s important to note that not everyone exposed to acute trauma will develop PTSD, as individual resilience, support systems, and coping strategies play a significant role in determining outcomes.

2. Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma refers to prolonged or repeated exposure to traumatic events or situations. Just like with acute trauma, survivors can react to these events differently. Some of the most common causes of chronic trauma include:

  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Abusive relationships
  • Homelessness
  • Chronic illness
  • Military Combat
  • Toxic Friendships

Unlike acute trauma, chronic trauma involves repeated negative experiences over an extended period, often leading to a cumulative impact on an individual’s well-being. Because of this, they never get a chance to process the situation thoroughly and are caught in a perpetual cycle of traumatic experiences.

Chronic trauma can have far-reaching effects on an individual’s psychological and emotional development. It can disrupt the development of healthy coping mechanisms and interpersonal skills, leading to difficulties in regulating emotions, forming trusting relationships, and managing stress. The experience of chronic trauma can result in complex post-traumatic symptoms, which may include:

  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Dissociation
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Depression
  • A negative self-concept

Children exposed to chronic trauma, especially in the form of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), are at an increased risk of long-term physical and mental health issues. This is due to the potential disruption of brain development during critical periods and the establishment of negative coping patterns that persist into adulthood.

3. Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is the most widespread form of trauma. Unlike acute and chronic trauma, complex trauma is a term that describes both the traumatic events themselves and a person’s responses to that trauma. Very often, complex trauma overlaps with other co-occurring disorders and stressors.

For example, someone who grew up in an abusive household may have experienced chronic childhood trauma. As an adult, they may develop mental health disorders, such as anxiety, PTSD, or depression. Their adult relationships may also be abusive, and these entwining factors influence their reactions to traumatic events.

Complex trauma can lead to intense disruptions in an individual’s sense of self, relationships, and overall functioning. Children exposed to complex trauma may develop harmful coping mechanisms such as dissociation, emotional dysregulation, self-harm, and difficulty forming healthy attachments. These individuals often struggle with establishing a coherent narrative of their past and may exhibit high shame, guilt, and self-blame levels.

The long-term effects of complex trauma can extend into adulthood, influencing the individual’s ability to manage stress, form stable relationships, and engage in meaningful work. Complex trauma survivors may experience ongoing identity, intimacy, and self-worth challenges.

The layers of multiple traumatic experiences may feed off each other in a negative downward spiral and work together to create a clear case of complex trauma. The danger of complex trauma is that a person’s response to traumatic events, such as depression, anxiety, or flashbacks, can lead to even more traumatisation.

Understanding the three types of trauma—acute, chronic, and complex—provides insights into how trauma can impact individuals. Each type has its unique characteristics, effects, and treatment considerations. Acute trauma is marked by sudden, intense events, while chronic trauma involves prolonged exposure to adversity and complex trauma is associated with early and repeated traumatic experiences and the addition of traumatic responses. By recognizing these distinctions, mental health professionals and caregivers can tailor interventions to best support individuals in their journey of healing and recovery from the impacts of trauma.

Trauma, PTSD, and CPTSD

Many people can live through multiple traumatic events without experiencing long-term symptoms, while others may develop PTSD or CPTSD.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) are both mental health conditions that can develop in response to experiencing traumatic events. While they share some similarities, they also have distinct features that set them apart.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD typically develops in response to a single traumatic event, such as a car accident, assault, natural disaster, or combat exposure. People with PTSD experience symptoms such as:

  • Intrusive memories or flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of and detachment from reminders of the trauma
  • Negative changes in mood and thinking, including numbness and blunted emotions
  • Heightened arousal (such as being easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, or poor concentration)

The symptoms of PTSD can persist for months to years after the traumatic event, but they might lessen over time or with treatment.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)

CPTSD typically arises from repeated and prolonged exposure to traumatic events, especially those that involve interpersonal relationships, such as childhood abuse, neglect, long-term domestic violence, or captivity. CPTSD includes symptoms of PTSD, but it can also include:

  • Difficulties in emotional regulation
  • Dissociative symptoms
  • Intense feelings of distrust
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of emptiness, shame, hopelessness, failure and/or guilt
  • Difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships.

CPTSD symptoms can be more pervasive and chronic compared to PTSD. The impact of prolonged trauma can result in more profound and persistent impairments in daily functioning.

Whether or not someone develops PTSD or CPTSD after experiencing trauma may have to do with resilience and risk factors.

Resilience Factors

Resilience is a term used to describe a person’s ability to adapt successfully to a challenging experience. Multiple behaviours and actions 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 some or all of these resiliency factors in place and acting on them quickly after a traumatic experience may help prevent the development of PTSD/ CPTSD.

Risk Factors

Certain risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of someone developing PTSD or CPTSD. A few of these risk factors include:

  • The severity of the traumatic event
  • Repeated instances of trauma
  • A family history of mental illness or addiction
  • Feeling as though your life was in danger during the traumatic event
  • Not having anyone to talk to about the trauma
  • Any of these factors can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event

How To Heal From Trauma

A person may not need specialized treatment if they are dealing with acute trauma and have only experienced symptoms briefly. Many people recover from traumatic events within a few weeks, but speaking with a mental health professional may help ensure that PTSD doesn’t develop.

However, if someone has experienced chronic or complex trauma, it is essential to reach out to mental health professionals that are highly experienced in dealing with trauma and PTSD. All Points North London has a wide array of care options to help treat your reactions to all three types of trauma, including ketamine-assisted therapy and trauma therapy.

Ketamine-Assisted Healing and Therapy

Ketamine has gained attention recently for its potential therapeutic effects while treating trauma. When combined with trauma therapy, ketamine-assisted therapy shows promise in healing and promoting positive treatment outcomes:

  • Ketamine potentially helps “reset” or disrupt trauma-associated patterns, allowing individuals to process their experiences differently and learn healthier coping strategies.
  • Ketamine may help individuals temporarily detach from overwhelming emotions and trauma-related memories, creating an opportunity for trauma-focused therapy, during which the person can explore traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Ketamine-assisted therapy may increase insight into traumatic experiences and associated emotions. This enhanced self-awareness allows individuals to better understand their trauma response patterns and work towards healing.
  • Trauma often leads individuals to engage in avoidance behaviours as a coping mechanism to avoid distressing memories and triggers. Ketamine can temporarily weaken these behaviours, allowing individuals to confront and process their trauma in therapy more directly.
  • It’s easy to see why ketamine has become a valuable tool for treating mental health disorders, but it’s important to note that ketamine alone is not a cure. Providers often combine ketamine-assisted therapy with other evidence-based approaches to improve the likelihood of success.

Ketamine is most commonly delivered in a higher dose using a nasal spray, nebulizer, IV, pill, or transdermal patch. At APN London, each client’s ketamine dosage is catered to their individual needs and determined by their supervising doctor. The goal of ketamine therapy is to help relieve trauma symptoms and quickly get to the root of a client’s mental health issue.

Healing with Trauma Therapy

Trauma doesn’t have to hold someone back forever. If a person has faced significant traumatic events or repetitive small traumas, their past may frequently affect their present. Trauma therapy at All Points North London can help manage symptoms, reprocess the past and reclaim your life. Trauma therapy can help fix patterns of thoughts and behaviours that seem impossible, whether from childhood or more recent experiences. APN London offers in-person therapy, outpatient group therapy, and support groups, in addition to other forms of support, like ketamine-assisted therapy, to help you heal from trauma and stress. To learn more, call 0203 984 7699 or fill out our confidential contact form.