Types of Trauma

Amy Pfeffer

April 27, 2023

Types of Trauma

Trauma can affect everyone differently, whether a one-time event or an ongoing stressor. Understanding the different types of trauma will help you better understand your experiences and receive the appropriate care.

Traumas can be one-time events, such as an accident or natural disaster, or chronic and repeated exposure to traumatic situations, like childhood abuse or domestic violence. Both can have lasting consequences.

Acute Trauma

The most common types of trauma are acute (a single traumatic event), chronic (recurring events such as domestic violence, bullying, medical illness with invasive procedures), and complex (exposure to several traumatic events that may be invasive).

Acute trauma occurs when an individual experiences a traumatic event that is sudden or unexpected. It severely affects an individual’s ability to function and live normally.

Traumatic stress reactions vary in severity; most survivors have immediate reactions that resolve without severe long-term effects, though some may develop PTSD or other mental health disorders.

Emotional responses to trauma may include numbness, dissociation, confusion, anxiety, and sadness. Reexperiencing the traumatic experience can be an important aspect of the recovery process.

Small T Trauma

When we hear the word trauma, we often think of big “T” events: war, combat, natural disasters, physical or sexual abuse, terrorism, and catastrophic accidents. These experiences are usually life-threatening and intensely distressing, but they’re not the only types of trauma to consider.

Small “T” trauma (also known as little-t trauma) is a less obvious, more personal form of traumatic stress that does not involve physical threats to one’s health or safety. These include work challenges, financial hardships, chronic pain, and other stressors that cause one to feel overwhelmed, frightened, or helpless.

While there’s no official definition of a traumatic event, it generally involves an overwhelming experience that exceeds one’s coping ability. These are often overlooked because they’re not overtly threatening one’s health or well-being, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less serious. Repeated small traumas can wreak havoc on an individual’s mental and emotional health.

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma refers to repeated, ongoing traumatic events. These include witnessing a murder, experiencing sexual abuse or neglect, living in a war zone, or having a parent die from a medical condition.

People who have experienced a traumatic event may experience various symptoms, including denial, shock, anger, fear, numbness, and physical pain. Symptoms may manifest immediately or after a delay.

The best way to manage the trauma is by changing one’s lifestyle, such as getting more sleep, eating healthier food, and taking time for self-care. These changes can help one cope with the trauma and prevent it from becoming an overwhelming and consuming problem in the future.

It’s important to recognize that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, it is the most common mental health disorder among those exposed to chronic trauma. However, for those who do develop PTSD, treatment options are available.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma involves exposure to traumatic events over an extended time. It can be the result of abuse, neglect, violence and a range of other situations in which others harm people.

It can also result from other types of traumatic experiences, such as community and work-related violence, extreme medical trauma, sexual exploitation and trafficking and repeated deployments for military or emergency services. These experiences can severely affect a person’s physical, emotional and mental well-being.

People who experience complex trauma can suffer long-term problems in their relationships with other people, including family members. People who have experienced complex trauma often struggle to build trusting relationships. They might also find it difficult to form new relationships. They might also feel a lot of anxiety, which can lead to substance use. Treatment can include a range of approaches, such as psychotherapy and psychiatric medication.