Different Types of Trauma Explained
Traumatic life experiences can have deep emotional, psychological, and even physical impacts on an individual. There are many different circumstances that can cause trauma, and everyone reacts to these events differently.
Some responses to trauma are the result of a singular instance, while others are related to persistent and ongoing distressing situations. Sometimes, multiple traumatic events can have severe long-term effects in the future.
All of these describe the three different types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex. Let’s take a look at each one of these in depth, as well as some ways you can seek treatment if you feel like a traumatic event has affected you.
*Content warning: this article contains information regarding sexual violence, domestic violence, and self-harm.
Acute trauma, or acute stress disorder, is often associated with a single life event that had distressing effects. Examples of acute trauma include rape, car accidents, witnessing an act of violence, or experiencing a life threatening event.
Symptoms of acute trauma include:
- Panic or extreme anxiety
- Avoidance or adverse reactions to certain locations or people
- Confusion and irritation
- Dissociation / feeling disconnected with surroundings
- Loss of focus or decrease in productivity
- Insomnia or other sleep disorders
- Lack of self-care, such as not showering or eating
Most people who experience acute trauma often exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but only for a short period of time. With that said, it is still possible for someone to develop chronic PTSD from a singular traumatic event.
Treating Acute Trauma
After a traumatic event, it is important to have immediate emotional support to try to prevent PTSD symptoms in the future. This often comes in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which seeks to allow an individual to come to terms with the traumatic event.
A tactic called cognitive restructuring can help individuals make sense of bad memories, allowing one to view their trauma from a realistic perspective.
Short term use of medication may also be recommended to help ease any co-occurring depressive or anxious symptoms associated with the trauma.
Unlike acute trauma, chronic trauma is the result of incidents that occurred over and over, and may continue to occur consistently. Ongoing sexual abuse, war or combat situations, religious trauma, or living in a domestically unsafe environment are a few examples.
This kind of trauma has the potential to lead to chronic PTSD, and individuals with chronic trauma typically need more treatment as opposed to those with acute traumas. This is because repeated distressing situations can take a high psychological toll on a person when compared to acute trauma.
The symptoms of chronic trauma may not appear for days, months, or years after the events have ceased. Longer term reactions can lead to things like unpredictable and distressing flashbacks or unpredictable emotions when exposed to stimuli that reminds them of a traumatic event.
Symptoms of chronic trauma include:
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or having angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering key features of a traumatic event
- Distorted feelings of guilt or blame
- Confusion or misperceptions of an individual’s environment
- Overreactions and irritability
- Sleeping disorders
Treating Chronic Trauma
Methods for treating chronic trauma are similar to those for acute trauma. However, medication is more commonly prescribed for chronic trauma.
The most common medications for chronic PTSD are antidepressants, as these can help alleviate the feelings of worry, dread, and sadness that often coincide. However, talk therapy is usually needed to help people come to terms with their traumas.
Exposure therapy is useful for people with chronic trauma, as it helps people face and control their fears. Over time, they are gradually exposed to their trauma under the supervision of a professional. Through writing, imagining, or visiting traumatic locations, an individual can help to build up a “tolerance” to their trauma and become well equipped to face it.
Chronic and acute trauma can occur at any point in a person’s life, but complex trauma describes exposure to traumatic events during childhood that then have wide-ranging and prolonged effects in the future. It’s a relatively new concept that continues to be researched.
Childhood abuse is a common example of complex trauma. Not only do the immediate traumas have an impact on development during childhood, but they can cause further distress and psychological turmoil later on in life.
The long-term consequences of child abuse, neglect, and other complex traumas include:
- Higher risk of re-victimization (chance of being abused again)
- Physical health problems like diabetes, heart disease, or gastrointestinal problems
- Increased risk of mental health disorders like PTSD, depression, dissociative disorders, psychosis, or anxiety disorders
- Increased risk of self-harm or suicidal behavior
- Disordered eating
- Substance abuse
- Aggression, violence, or criminal behavior
- Increased likeliness to transmit abuse and neglect own children
There are many factors that can affect a person’s response to complex traumas into adulthood, such as their age at the time of abuse or the severity/repetitiveness of the abuse. Some adults experience chronic and debilitating effects of these events, while others may have less adverse outcomes.
Treating Complex Trauma
Like chronic and acute trauma, medication and therapy are the most effective treatments to help individuals manage and come to terms with their past.
However, a fairly new form of therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been effective for treating complex traumas. It’s hypothesized that distressing emotions and behaviors from traumatic events are the result of memories being processed incorrectly.
Since the brain is not fully developed as a child, it’s more common for traumatic memories to incorrectly process and therefore become incorrectly accessed as an adult. In EMDR, a clinician targets a specific memory and asks the client to hold different aspects of the thought in their mind while using their eyes to track the doctor’s hand movements.
The thought is that these eye movements closely mimic those of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which then helps the client process their memories and disturbing feelings.
While acute, chronic, and complex traumas are the three main types, there are a few different sub-groups of trauma that are often referred to separately because of their distinct features.
Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS)
Rape Trauma Syndrome is a stress-related disorder that often occurs in individuals who have been affected by rape, sexual assault, or abuse. What makes RTS markedly different from other traumas is the coping process by which many individuals undergo.
There are four stages of RTS:
- Acute Stage: Begins hours, days, or weeks after the event. This is normally where the survivor will experience the most stress, often reacting with outward expression of shock and dismay or controlled expressions of calmness and rationality.
- Outward Adjustment: During this phase, it may appear that the survivor has “moved on.” However, this stage is usually marked by intense internal anxiety and denial. This is where coping mechanisms and practical decisions about their future come into play.
- Reorganization Stage: After the survivor has received professional treatment or enough support to move them out of the adjustment phase, they must now resolve feelings about themselves and the assailant. Often, this stage is marked by a return to internal and external turmoil.
- Renormalization Stage: Over time, individuals are able to integrate back into society and experience a normal life. While feelings of sadness or weariness surrounding the event may persist, it no longer becomes the central focus of an individual’s life.
Religious Trauma Syndrome
Religious Trauma Syndrome is a condition experienced by individuals who are having difficulty leaving an authoritarian religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. Authoritarian institutions may condemn the idea of independent thought, suppress child development at a young age, and preach skewed perceptions of control hierarchies.
This can cause a great deal of stress if a person decides to disaffiliate their religious indoctrination. This stress can be related to a loss of connection to faith, loss of community, or coming to terms with abuse.
Also, trauma bonding can cause some individuals to feel a deep connection to their abusive institutions, making it much more difficult to leave. This can cause cycles of abuse that continue to have negative effects on the psyche.
The three main types of trauma are acute, chronic, and complex. Acute trauma is usually a response to a singular event, such as a car crash or sexual assault. It is common to display symptoms of PTSD, though they usually only last for a short period and don’t develop into chronic PTSD.
Conversely, chronic trauma occurs after repeated events, such as repeated abuse or war. The symptoms of chronic trauma can last for years and are typically more unpredictable.
Finally, complex trauma describes repeated trauma, such as childhood abuse and neglect, that occurs during childhood that then causes long-term consequences into adulthood.
The good news is that PTSD is treatable.
If a past traumatic event is causing you stress, you are not alone. YANA is a virtual mental health clinic that matches you with a licensed doctor to craft a tailored treatment plan just for you. You’ll have access to your doctor from the comfort of home, and you can even get medications shipped directly to your door if recommended by your physician.
Coming to terms with trauma is difficult, but we’re here for you every step of the way.
Click here to schedule your first consultation.
NIMH · Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – NIMH
Evaluation of cognitive restructuring for post-traumatic stress disorder in people with severe mental illness – NCBI
What Is Exposure Therapy? – APA
Effects of child abuse and neglect for adult survivors – Australian Institute of Family Studies
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy – APA