Even if you’ve experienced a distressing or catastrophic event, you might hesitate to call it trauma. You might think that “trauma” must mean something much more serious than what you’ve endured.
In fact, the word trauma can accurately describe many different experiences. To clear all this up, we’re breaking down the types of trauma, so you can more easily recognize it (and find help for it) in yourself and others.
Before we get into the details, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what “trauma” means (and doesn’t mean). If you’ve ever broken a bone or been in an accident and heard a doctor refer to your injury as “physical trauma,” you know that not all trauma is psychological. Any major bodily harm can accurately be called trauma. We’re going to focus on emotional rather than physical trauma in this article, but we should note that the distinction between them isn’t always clear cut.
“Physical trauma can absolutely be linked with emotional trauma,” says Talkiatry therapist Tracey Griffin. “For example, it can affect the relationship you have with your own body.”
Like physical trauma, emotional trauma happens in the aftermath of a terrible, potentially life-altering event or series of events. But two people can have the same distressing experience without both suffering lasting trauma. That’s because trauma is less about the event itself and more about your reaction to it.
Trauma forces your brain into survival mode (often identified by fight, flight, freeze, or faun reactions), which can save your life in a moment. But if your brain doesn’t switch back, those same impulses can seriously impair your ability to fully live your life, getting in the way of work, fun, and especially your relationships with other people. A prolonged response to trauma like this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Here are some of the symptoms of trauma:
Acute trauma happens during and shortly after a single distressing or life-threatening event, like being the victim of a crime.
Chronic trauma happens during and after a prolonged distressing situation that includes multiple incidents, like an abusive relationship.
Complex trauma happens during and after a variety of distressing events, usually involving two or more of the other types. Complex trauma often occurs in childhood and can have negative effects that last a lifetime.
As the conversation around trauma continues across the country (and the world), experts have proposed new categories to account for more types of trauma. Because all the types outlined above focus on individual people’s traumatic events, many of these terms refer to collective experiences of trauma.
Events that have widespread consequences, like natural disasters or institutional discrimination, can terrify large groups of people—leading to historical or intergenerational trauma.
If any of this sounds like you, you should know that recovering from trauma isn’t easy, but there are plenty of things you can do to help yourself heal:
It’s important to keep in mind that real life doesn’t normally divide itself neatly into categories. Even if what you’ve experienced doesn’t sound like anything we’ve described, it could still be trauma if it’s had a lasting impact on the way you think, feel, and live.
If you’re dealing with trauma, you don’t have to heal alone. Talking to a psychiatrist or therapist about your feelings can be the first step toward a better life.
Talkiatry is a mental health practice, and our clinicians review everything we write. However, articles are never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may need mental health help, talk to a psychiatrist. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Tracey Griffin is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who is dedicated to helping people align with their most authentic selves over the last 11 years. This includes addressing the struggles of mental health in an open, empathetic, and non-judgmental, therapeutic relationship. She is dedicated to establishing a collaborative working relationship with individuals to help achieve their goals while living a fulfilled and balanced life. Tracey received her Master of Science in Mental Health Counseling from Pace University following her Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology from the same institution. She has been trained in performing biopsychosocial assessments and is also a Credentialed Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor.
Tracey’s treatment approach is person-centered in conjunction with evidence-based practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and motivational interviewing while remaining culturally sensitive and inclusive. She is well versed in harm reduction as well as abstinence-based approaches to addiction treatment and roots her practice to focus on treating the whole self which can include exploration of spirituality and purpose. Tracey has experience working with individuals who experience co-occurring disorders, anxiety, depression, codependency, addiction, personality disorders, LGBTQ, men’s issues, and trauma.