What are the different types of trauma?

October 17, 2022

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.

What is trauma?

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:

  • Avoiding your own problems or conflict with others
  • Blaming yourself or others for unwelcome events
  • Eating much less or more than you normally do
  • Experiencing your life as if it were a movie or a dream (dissociation)
  • Feeling afraid, anxious, or panicked for no apparent reason
  • Feeling depressed, emotionally numb, or nothing at all
  • Getting irritated or angry more easily, or becoming aggressive
  • Giving up quickly when you encounter an obstacle
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Neglecting to take care of yourself
  • Sleeping less than you normally do, or having nightmares
  • Spending less time with other people
  • Startling easily or feeling jumpy
  • Struggling to remember things or pay attention
  • Sudden shifts in the way you act, feel, or think about the world
  • Unexplained body aches, muscle tension, or fatigue

What are the types of trauma?

Acute trauma

Acute trauma happens during and shortly after a single distressing or life-threatening event, like being the victim of a crime.

Chronic trauma

Chronic trauma happens during and after a prolonged distressing situation that includes multiple incidents, like an abusive relationship.

Complex trauma

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.

Other types of trauma

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.

How do I deal with 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:

  • Make connections: Trauma can be isolating, which makes it all the more important that you lean into your support network to avoid making matters worse. If you don’t know anyone who can relate to what you’re going through, you could try searching online for a relevant support group you can join.
  • Seek therapy: Many different types of therapy can help you break the negative thought patterns that trauma causes, but some therapists specialize in trauma and might be better equipped to help you. Look for “trauma-focused” or “trauma-informed” in a potential therapist’s background to find a trauma specialist.
  • Consider psychiatry: If your experiences have left you with distressing symptoms, a psychiatrist can work with you to make sense of what you’re going through and figure out the right treatment plan.

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.

Related posts
Share:

Mental health is personal.
So is our approach to psychiatry.