A Guide To The Different Types Of Trauma

Trauma is a complex experience, and it affects everyone differently. If you or a loved one has experienced trauma, it's essential to find the right support. To start with, it could be helpful to gain more insight into what trauma is. 

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What is trauma?

When a distressing event occurs in someone's life, this can lead to trauma. Trauma is an overwhelming emotional response, and many people with trauma struggle to cope. 

Trauma can occur immediately after the event and may persist for some time. Unfortunately, there is no set time frame for how long trauma lasts because everyone responds differently. In some cases, trauma can last for several weeks or months¹. 

Initially, trauma appears as feelings of shock, denial, or surrealness. However, when you return to everyday life, the effects of the trauma can continue. For example, you may experience flashbacks of the event, unpredictable emotions, anxiety, physical symptoms, or difficulty sleeping. 

Therefore, trauma can significantly strain your life and impact your work and relationships. However, finding the proper support and understanding the process of trauma can help. 

What causes trauma?

The underlying cause of trauma² is a distressing emotional or physical event. These events are typically dangerous, stressful, painful, or unpleasant.

Aspects of these events can include:

  • Being physically injured

  • Being mentally or physically unwell

  • Seeing another person hurt, ill, or pass away

  • Living through a dangerous experience

  • Feeling helpless

  • Experiencing extreme fear or horror

  • Experiencing the loss of something important to you

Events that may cause trauma are:

  • Accidents

  • Natural disasters

  • Illness or health-related problems

  • Mental illness

  • Death

  • Bullying

  • Violence

  • Physical abuse

  • Sexual abuse

  • Terrorism

  • War

  • Surgery³

  • Childbirth⁴

These events could be one-off occurrences or ongoing. Complex trauma is when you experience multiple and varied traumatic events. 

What are the symptoms of trauma?

There are physical and emotional aspects of trauma. Because of this, you may experience an array of symptoms. 

Emotional symptoms include:

  • Shock

  • Denial or disbelief

  • Mood swings and feeling agitated

  • Anxiety and fear

  • Feeling helpless

  • Feeling disconnected

  • Social withdrawal

  • Confusion

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feelings of guilt and self-blame

  • Continually thinking about the traumatic event

  • Crying often

  • Feelings dependent or linked to a trusted person

Physical manifestations of trauma may include: 

  • Sleep disorders (insomnia or nightmares)

  • Tiredness

  • Being startled easily (strong reflexes)

  • Racing or increased heartbeat

  • Body aches and pains

  • Muscle tension

  • Body weight fluctuations

  • Decreased immune function⁵

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms 

What is the difference between physical and emotional trauma?

You may have heard of 'physical trauma' or 'emotional trauma,' as these common terms describe the trauma. Specialists also refer to emotional trauma as 'psychological trauma.'

While these aspects of trauma sound separate, it is possible for you to experience physical and emotional trauma at the same time. 

Physical trauma

Physical trauma⁶ is when your body is seriously injured. Sometimes the words trauma and injury are used interchangeably in a medical setting. Physical injuries or trauma can lead to bleeding, broken bones, concussions, or open wounds. 

There are two types of physical trauma:

  • Blunt force trauma

  • Penetrating trauma (internal trauma) 

Blunt force trauma is typically caused by a dull surface object that strikes the body, causing physical harm. Penetrating trauma is caused by an object that pierces the body, resulting in a wound. 

Surgery causes physical trauma. However, this is a controlled injury. Regardless, surgery can be a traumatic experience for some people because it can cause distress and pain.  

Examples of physical trauma include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents

  • Falls

  • Injuries from sports

  • Injuries from natural disasters

  • Injuries from violence or abuse 

In severe cases, physical trauma can cause shock, overwhelm, and you may find it difficult to cope. When physical trauma becomes particularly distressing, this can cause emotional trauma.

Emotional trauma

Emotional trauma refers to trauma that affects the mind after a distressing event. 

People with emotional trauma may experience:

  • Flashbacks

  • Negative thoughts

  • Denial 

  • Unpredictable emotions

  • Anxiety 

  • Panic attacks

Emotional trauma can also cause social impairment and disrupt other areas of life, such as work. 

There is no time limit on emotional trauma. This type of trauma may resolve quickly for some, while for others, it could last for several weeks or even years. 

Examples of events that can cause emotional trauma are:

  • Bullying

  • Physical violence or abuse

  • Sexual abuse

  • Grief

  • Separation

  • Loss

  • Neglect

  • Humiliation 

What are the three types of emotional trauma?

Emotional trauma can be either acute, chronic, or complex. These classifications generally describe the impact of trauma immediately after an event or during ongoing circumstances. 

Acute trauma

Acute trauma, also called acute stress disorder, is the distress you experience after a traumatic event. Acute trauma is typically related to a single incident. 

Experts state that acute trauma⁷ occurs within the first three days following the event and lasts no longer than four weeks.

Symptoms of acute trauma include:

  • Recurring and distressing memories of the event

  • Repetitive dreams related to the event

  • Flashbacks of the event

  • Distress triggered by reminders of the event

  • Negative mood and thoughts

  • Feeling detached from oneself and emotions

  • Amnesia about the event or one's life

  • Avoidant behavior

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Feeling hyper-alert and strong reflexes

  • Easily distracted

Chronic trauma

Chronic trauma, also called chronic stress, is related to ongoing trauma. Ongoing trauma arises when you experience a distressing event on several occasions. 

Chronic trauma is common in children who experience abuse or severe poverty. However, anyone repeatedly exposed to the same distressing event can develop chronic trauma. 

Because the source of the trauma is ongoing, it can affect someone for an extended period. 

The effects of chronic trauma⁸ include:

  • Impaired memory and learning

  • Impaired cognitive performance

  • Delayed development in children

  • Social impairment

  • Disruptive behavior

  • Anxiety and depression

  • Anger, rage, and violent outbursts

  • Difficulty sleeping⁹

  • Fatigue

Complex trauma

Complex trauma is when you experience multiple and varied traumatic events. This type of trauma is often in the context of significant interpersonal relationships. As a result, you form unique reactions in your response to trauma. 

Complex trauma is similar to PTSD. However, some experts¹⁰ claim that the symptoms of complex trauma do not entirely match the symptoms of PTSD. Therefore, complex trauma and PTSD are most likely different conditions. Researchers have classified some signs of complex trauma as complex PTSD (CPTSD). 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Sometime after the incident, trauma eases and eventually goes away. However, in other cases, trauma can persist long after the event. When this occurs, it's called PTSD. 

PTSD symptoms begin within the first three months following the event. However, in some cases, symptoms may present years later. 

To be diagnosed with PTSD, your symptoms must last longer than a month and severely impact your work, relationships, or other essential aspects of life. 

You meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis if you have:

  • One or more re-experiencing symptoms: Flashbacks, nightmares, negative or frightening thoughts

  • One or more avoidance symptoms: Avoiding feelings, people, places, or reminders of the trauma

  • Two or more symptoms related to arousal and reactivity: Feeling tense, being easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, or experiencing outbursts

  • Two or more symptoms related to cognition and mood: Memory loss, negative thoughts, disinterest in enjoyable activities, feeling guilty or blaming yourself

Complex PTSD

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD¹¹) arises from traumatic events, typically longer-term trauma. If you experienced childhood trauma, felt trapped in an abusive relationship, or were a prisoner of war, you may have CPTSD. These experiences can cause deep-seated trust issues and symptoms, affecting all facets of your life. 

Symptoms of CPTSD include:

  • Symptoms of PTSD as above

  • Distrusting others

  • Feeling different and disconnected from other people

  • Feelings of anger, emptiness, worthlessness, guilt, or shame

  • Emotional dysregulation: Difficulty controlling your emotions

  • Dissociation: Disconnecting from yourself or your thoughts, feelings, or memories

  • Emotional flashbacks: Intense intrusive thoughts and feelings triggered by something happening. You feel like you're back in a traumatic situation, which may cause a panic attack.

  • Destructive or risky behavior, including substance misuse, unsafe sex, and self-harm

  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 trauma?

Some experts¹² may also classify trauma as type 1 or type 2. Type 1 refers to a trauma from a single incident, whereas type 2 refers to repeated or prolonged trauma. 

Type 1 trauma is similar to acute trauma, and type 2 is similar to chronic trauma. However, when experts use these terms, they generally discuss abuse-related trauma. 

It's important to note that this trauma classification is not widely accepted. Because of this, some medical professionals may avoid using it. 

Is childhood trauma different from adult trauma?

Regardless of age, when a traumatic event occurs, it can be challenging for anyone to work through it. However, some studies⁸ have shown that trauma may affect children differently. For example, trauma can impact crucial aspects of childhood development, such as learning and regulating behavior. 

Additionally, childhood trauma can be quite complex when it involves interpersonal trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. These events can be challenging for a child to overcome and have lasting effects. 

Other studies¹³ have shown that people who suffered from childhood trauma are more likely to develop:

  • Life-long panic disorder

  • Agoraphobia (fear of being in an inescapable situation)

  • PTSD

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Substance abuse 

When to see a doctor

If you feel that your trauma is ongoing or challenging to cope with, a doctor can offer some solutions to help you get through it.

Additionally, talking to a doctor might also be beneficial in terms of helping you identify specific aspects of your trauma that you may not be aware of. 

The lowdown

There are different types of trauma, and trauma affects everyone differently. If you or a loved one is experiencing trauma, the best thing to do is talk about it and find support.

Frequently asked questions

Is PTSD a type of trauma?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that can develop in response to a traumatic event. PTSD can persist for some time after an event. For some people, it can last for several years.

Is trauma the same as anxiety?

Anxiety¹⁴, such as generalized anxiety disorder, is the persistent feeling of dread, nervousness, or excessive worry. In contrast, trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event. Anxiety can develop as a result of trauma. However, anxiety can still develop in the absence of trauma.

How long does it take to process trauma?

There is no set time limit for how long trauma lasts because everyone responds differently. In some cases, trauma can last for several weeks or months. However, people who experience PTSD may experience emotional and physical effects from trauma for several years.

What qualifies as emotional trauma?

If you are experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, negative thoughts, denial, mood swings, anxiety, or panic attacks after a traumatic event, you most likely have emotional trauma. If you suspect this is the case, it's best to speak to a doctor for further clarification and help.

  1. Coping with traumatic events | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health

  2. Chapter 1: Trauma-informed care: A sociocultural perspective (2014)

  3. Physical trauma | NIH: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

  4. Post-traumatic stress disorder post partum (2012)

  5. Physical health problems after single trauma exposure: When stress takes root in the body (2011)

  6. What is physical trauma? | NIH: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

  7. Acute stress disorder (2022)

  8. When trauma hinders learning (2018)

  9. Challenges associated with exposure to chronic trauma: Using a public health framework to foster resilient outcomes among youth (2011)

  10. Chapter 3: Understanding the impact of trauma (2014)

  11. Development of the new CPTSD diagnosis for ICD-11 (2021)

  12. Personality characteristics of adult survivors of childhood trauma (2007)

  13. Childhood trauma, trauma in adulthood, and psychiatric diagnoses (2009)

  14. Anxiety disorders | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health

Other sources:

Have you considered clinical trials for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

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