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The Different Types of Trauma Explained — Talkspace

What Are the Different Types of Trauma?

When we think of psychological trauma, we often think of a single event that causes great harm or pain. However, different types of traumas can occur throughout our lives. Trauma isn’t limited to physical events; it can also be emotional or psychological in nature. Some common trauma symptoms can include:

  • Flashbacks or intrusive memories of the traumatic event
  • Nightmares about the event
  • Avoidance of people, places, things, or situations that remind you of the event
  • Feeling numb or disconnected from others
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Hypervigilance
  • Confusion
  • Exhaustion
  • Agitation
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociation
  • Chronic pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Angry outbursts
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Believing the world is a dangerous place and that you can’t trust anyone
  • Feeling unable to experience pleasure

“Trauma can be caused by various situations ranging from natural disasters to abuse, vehicle accidents, and more.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

While most people are familiar with the concept of trauma, many are unaware of the different types of trauma that exist. Trauma can be classified as acute, chronic, or complex.

1. Acute trauma

Acute trauma is a psychological trauma that occurs in response to a single, highly stressful event. For example, it can come after experiencing a natural disaster, seeing a bad car accident, or witnessing violence. Acute trauma can lead to long-term mental health problems if not appropriately addressed.  

Examples of acute trauma

Acute trauma can come from a single event threatening your life or safety. It can also result from an act of violence against you or after witnessing a traumatic event happening to someone else. 

This type of trauma can lead to acute stress disorder (ASD), which is a mental health condition typically appearing within 3 days of a traumatizing event and lasting up to 1 month.

2. Chronic trauma

Chronic trauma is a response to ongoing or repeated traumatic experiences. It differs from acute trauma in this sense, as acute trauma occurs after just one traumatic experience or event. 

Examples of chronic trauma

Chronic trauma can result from any of the following:

  • Physical abuse: Physical abusers often use force to control their victims. They may hit, kick, choke, or throw things at them — the list goes on. It’s common for physical abusers to threaten their victims and use fear and intimidation to control them.
  • Sexual abuse: Sexual abusers often take advantage of people who are weaker than they are. They may be in a position of power over their victim, making it easier for them to coerce or force them into sexual acts. Victims of sexual abuse often suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sometimes even long after the initial event occurred.
  • Emotional abuse: Emotional abusers try to chip away at self-esteem by putting their victims down constantly or making them feel bad about themselves.
  • Domestic violence: Domestic violence can cause chronic trauma. It’s not always physical abuse either — mental and emotional torture can be just as debilitating. Domestic violence targets every aspect of a person’s life to control them. It leaves long-term scars that can be difficult to deal with for years after the abuse has stopped.
  • Poverty: Growing up in poverty can result in chronic trauma. Children who grow up below the poverty line are more likely to see violence, witness drug use, and not have enough food or adequate shelter. This can lead to lasting effects such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more.

3. Complex trauma

Complex trauma is a type of stress similar to generational trauma that can occur when someone experiences multiple, chronic, or prolonged exposure to traumatizing events. It can happen to both children and adults. However, complex traumas like abandonment trauma, for example, are more common among those who experienced abuse or neglect during childhood.

Complex trauma can cause long-term problems with physical and mental health. Forming and maintaining healthy relationships can also be very isolating and challenging.

Examples of complex trauma

Complex trauma can harm mental and physical health due to repeated, continued traumatization. It can be the result of things like: 

  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault
  • War-related experiences

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