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What is Trauma - Definition, Types and Ways to Cope

Medically Reviewed and Edited by 
Olga Kyrychenko, Psychologist

Traumas consist of experiences that sweep away our psychic defenses and penetrate the mind without the latter being able to contain and process them, generating intense sensations of terror, impotence and anxiety.

Not all traumatic experiences occur in circumstances of extreme stress, but  can also happen in interpersonal situations. Trauma is therefore an intrinsic component of life: almost every human being will experience some form of trauma in the course of their life. In fact, research estimates that 60–75% of people in North America experience a traumatic event at some point.

This article aims to delve into the complexity of psychological trauma definition, shed light on its causes, symptoms, and potential risks, and provide an extensive understanding of how to treat it effectively.

What is Trauma and What Causes it?

Psychological trauma is the consequence of a highly negative and life-threatening event, which generates an emotional “fracture” in the individual who experiences it, undermining their sense of stability, security, identity, and physical continuity.

A trauma marks a laceration, a clear separation between a “before” of the trauma and an “after”. Before the traumatic event, a person feels that they had control over their life, a control they no longer feel after the traumatic experience.

Trauma can arise from a multitude of causes. Typical traumas are physical or psychological abuse, sexual violence, severe neglect and emotional neglect, complicated mourning, serious illness, bullying, serious accidents, or other events that threaten the person’s physical or mental health. It is also possible to develop psychological traumas simply by witnessing these events.

Recent research suggests that each person responds differently to a traumatic event: two people of the same age, sex, and social status, subjected to the same traumatic event, can respond in completely different ways.

The main variables that influence the response to trauma concern the intensity of the traumatic event, the phase of the life cycle in which it is faced, the person’s resilience capacity, the presence of a social/family fabric capable of supporting it, and much more.

Traumatic experiences suffered in delicate moments of development, such as childhood or adolescence, can leave deeper traces in the personality, making the individual more vulnerable to the development of post-traumatic symptoms. If your child or someone you know is dealing with trauma, read our guide to online teen therapy.

Many authors today, regardless of their theoretical approach, argue that small and large psychological traumas, experienced in childhood, have a significant impact on the emergence of psychological stress and the development of various mental disorders.

An unresolved psychological trauma constitutes a dysfunctional load in a person’s brain which makes it more fragile concerning the impact of other possible subsequent life difficulties and decreases its resilience. This is why we say that an unresolved trauma tends to become “complex”, giving rise to dysfunctional ways of relating with oneself, with others, and with internal reality, which can become the basis of different symptoms.

Trauma Symptoms and Signs

The main symptoms of psychological trauma can be identified into four different areas:

Intrusion: Subjects tend to relive the traumatic event with intrusive images, nightmares, and intense emotional reactions as if the trauma were recurring at that moment (flashbacks). In some cases, the emotional involvement is such as to cause the subject to lose awareness of the surrounding environment during flashbacks (dissociative symptom).

Avoidance: The subject implements various strategies to avoid places, people, or objects associated with the trauma in a persistent way.

Negative changes in mood and thinking: Mood may appear deflected most of the time, and the subject may show a reduction of interest in normal activities or a feeling of detachment or estrangement from others. May exhibit persistent negative emotional reactions (anxiety, shame, guilt, horror) and inability to experience positive emotions.

Individuals may display exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves (“it’s my fault”), or the world (“the world is a dangerous place”). Amnesia towards some important element of the traumatic event may also occur.

Marked psychomotor activation and high reactivity: The patient may show a state of constant agitation and hyper-vigilance, manifesting irritable mood and outbursts of anger even without provocation. Often There are exaggerated startle responses even in the face of trivial stimuli. They may also experience difficulty concentrating, sleeping, or risk-taking or self-destructive behavior.

Trauma vs. PTSD - Differences and Similarities

Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) share a symbiotic relationship, yet they remain distinct entities. While trauma is the emotional response to distressing events, PTSD is a specific psychiatric diagnosis characterized by a constellation of symptoms persisting for at least a month after the traumatic incident.

The key distinction lies in the duration and intensity of symptoms. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD; however, trauma is often a precursor to the disorder. Recognizing this difference is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment planning.

The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) defines PTSD as an event that exposes a person to death or a threat of death, serious injury, or sexual assault in one or more of the following ways: have direct experience of the event witnessing a traumatic event that happened to others, acquiring knowledge about a distressing incident that occurred to a relative or an intimate companion.

In the event of death or threatened death, the event must have been of an accidental or violent nature; Undergoing recurrent or intense encounters with distressing specifics of the traumatic incident(s), such as first responders handling human remains or police officers frequently exposed to information regarding child abuse.

This category includes sexual abuse, assault, bereavement, accident, illness, and natural disaster.

The symptoms of PTSD are the result of the impossibility of the mind to process the memory functionally and place it in the semantic and autobiographical memory. The result is that many fragments of the memory are not integrated and continue to resurface in the mind in a fragmented way, making the person still feel in danger in the present, when the danger has already passed.

PTSD is believed to impact 6% of the population, with a higher tendency for occurrence in women compared to men. Both trauma and PTSD are also treated online –  for more information on the best avaliable options, read our online therapy for trauma and PTSD guide.

Other Types of Traumas

Types of Trauma can be categorized as acute, chronic, or complex.

Acute Trauma

This type of trauma is the result of a single distressing event, such as a car accident, robbery, shooting, or natural disaster. These are usually extreme and unexpected situations that threaten our emotional safety or our physical integrity.

The event creates a lasting impression in our minds, leaving an intense emotional imprint on the brain. The incident isn’t encapsulated in language but rather in lived experiences, which is why we often find ourselves re-experiencing it multiple times through flashbacks. These memories are usually not a rational narrative of what happened, but rather a reliving of the unpleasant sensations and emotions experienced during the traumatic event.

When this type of trauma is left untreated and the person fails to process and incorporate it into their life story, it may lead to the development of PTSD. It is usually accompanied by nightmares, panic attacks, excessive anxiety, constant tension, lack of confidence, and a feeling of disconnection with the environment, which is why the person may find it difficult to go about their daily life normally.

Chronic Trauma

This type of trauma occurs when we are exposed to distressing traumatic events over a long period. Chronic trauma frequently arises from severe illness, enduring domestic violence, systematic bullying, or exposure to extreme circumstances like warfare.

The chain of multiple acute adverse events can also cause emotional trauma. Negative phases of life, such as the loss of a job combined with a car accident and/or the death of a loved one, can generate cumulative trauma because each event further deteriorates the already nearly depleted psychological resources to deal with adversity. Likewise, if left unaddressed, acute trauma can evolve into a chronic trauma.

At times, the signs of chronic trauma may manifest much later, possibly even years after the incident. To a large extent, this situation tends to push us into maladaptive coping styles such as avoidance, rationalization, social isolation, or substance abuse. But when symptoms do appear, they can be extremely painful and even disabling.

Complex Trauma

This type of psychological trauma occurs following exposure to multiple traumatic events or experiences that are somehow related to each other and are generally framed in the context of interpersonal relationships. These adverse experiences begin in childhood, are recurring in nature, and are inflicted by people who are supposed to be a source of love, security, and support. This is the case, for example, with experiences of abuse or neglect in childhood.

However, complex trauma can also appear in adulthood, such as when we get involved in toxic relationships that undermine our independence and self-esteem. The shared characteristic in this form of emotional trauma is the sense of being “confined” within the situation, to the extent that its effects endure over time and gradually diminish one’s psychological capacity to confront the issue assertively.

As a result, this form of psychological trauma eventually induces a condition of acquired powerlessness. The person may feel ashamed and bad about themselves, blaming themselves for what happened to them, even if they are not responsible for it. They often develop low self-esteem and a sense of inadequacy which ends up affecting their relationships and, of course, erodes their well-being.

Each type of trauma carries its unique challenges and implications for recovery. Cultural considerations and social support systems play crucial roles in shaping how individuals and communities navigate the aftermath of trauma.

This type of trauma often has a lasting negative effect on how we navigate and maintain various intimate relationships in our lives. If you feel that might be the case, read our guides for online couples therapy or online family therapy.

Long-Term Effects of Trauma and Potential Risks

The echoes of trauma often reverberate through a person’s life, potentially leading to a cascade of long-term effects. These may encompass a heightened risk of mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and borderline personality disorder.

Physical health can also be compromised, as trauma has been linked to an increased vulnerability to chronic conditions like cardiovascular diseases and autoimmune disorders. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study revealed a direct correlation between ACEs and negative health outcomes later in life.

It is important to keep in mind that no matter what kind of emotional trauma we experience, we can always recover from it. It’s never too late.

How to Treat Trauma Effectively

While the journey to healing from trauma is inherently personal, evidence-based treatments offer hope and guidance:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is rooted in the notion that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected, shaping our experiences and responses to the world around us. This therapeutic approach helps people alter their cognitive patterns to impact their behaviors and emotions.

In trauma treatment, it helps individuals identify and reframe negative thought patterns associated with the traumatic event. Therapists guide patients through techniques to challenge and modify these thoughts, leading to changes in emotional responses and behaviors. This process empowers individuals to regain a sense of control over their thoughts and reactions, aiding in their recovery from trauma.

CBT’s effectiveness in trauma recovery is substantiated by a wealth of research studies. A meta-analysis conducted by Bradley, Greene, Russ, Dutra, and Westen (2005) examined the efficacy of CBT in treating trauma-related symptoms in children and adolescents.

The results highlighted significant reductions in symptoms like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, a study by Resick et al. (2002) demonstrated the efficacy of CBT, specifically Prolonged Exposure, in reducing PTSD symptoms among female survivors of sexual assault.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy and EMDR

EMDR is another effective therapy that has shown promising results in helping individuals process traumatic memories and reduce symptoms. These therapies aim to desensitize the emotional charge associated with traumatic memories, enabling survivors to regain control over their thoughts and emotions.

During a session, a therapist guides the patient to focus on the traumatic memory while engaging in bilateral stimulation. For instance, it could involve tracking the therapist’s fingers with their eyes. This process is believed to help reprocess the traumatic memory, reducing its emotional charge and the associated distressing symptoms. EMDR aims to transform the way the memory is stored, making it less distressing and more manageable.

Online, Ayana Therapy is one of a few providers offering this treatment. Read my full Ayana Therapy review to see if it can be a good fit for you.

Mindfulness-Based Approaches

Studies on mindfulness-based approaches suggest that therapies such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) offer effective tools to manage distress and build emotional regulation skills.

These techniques involve cultivating present-moment awareness and acceptance, giving individuals the ability to stay grounded in the present: as they observe their thoughts without judgment, individuals can reduce the overwhelming impact of traumatic memories.

In a mindfulness session, through guided exercises such as focused breathing, mental body scan, or mindful observation, individuals are guided to intentionally focus on their sensations, thoughts, and emotions as they arise, without judgment. This practice allows trauma survivors to develop a non-judgmental attitude toward their thoughts and emotions related to the trauma.

For more information, read my guide on Mindfulness based therapy here.

Connection With Others

A 2019 study shows how group therapy and support groups provide safe spaces for survivors to share their experiences and foster connections with others who understand their journey.

I recommend Circles Up as the best group therapy option online, you can read my full Circles Review and see why. 7Cups is another decent option since it’s free of charge, even though the person leading the group is a trained volunteer and not a licensed professional. 

Self-Care

Engaging in self-care practices helps individuals deal with the emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms of trauma. For instance, regular exercise can help mitigate the effects of trauma-triggered fight-or-flight responses. Recent research suggests that aerobic exercises can particularly benefit those with PTSD.

Additionally, maintaining a balanced lifestyle plays a vital role in mental health for trauma survivors, as they might struggle with relaxation and sleep. Prioritizing 7-9 hours of sleep each night, adhering to a well-rounded diet, and abstaining from alcohol and drugs contribute significantly to mental well-being.

Treatment Options for Coping with Trauma

Trauma is a multifaceted phenomenon with far-reaching implications for physical and psychological well-being. Understanding its nuances, causes, symptoms, and potential long-term effects is paramount in fostering a compassionate approach to healing.

By recognizing the signs of trauma, distinguishing it from PTSD, acknowledging the various types, and embracing effective treatment strategies, we can empower survivors to reclaim their lives from the clutches of adversity.

Recognizing the need for help and support is a the first crucial step on the journey to healing from psychological trauma. If you or someone you know is struggling with the following symptoms after a traumatic experience, it’s important to seek professional assistance:

  • Recurrent Flashbacks or Intrusive Memories
  • Avoidance Behavior
  • Emotional Numbing
  • Feeling disconnected to reality or dissociation
  • Intense Anxiety or Panic Attacks
  • Negative Self-Perception
  • Substance Abuse;
  • Relationship Struggles
  • Physical Symptoms

It’s also important reaching out for help from a mental health professional even if you experience mild symptoms. Almost all online therapy sites we review offer specialized treatments for dealing with trauma or PTSD.

If you are experiencing more severe symptoms or are in the midst of an active crisis, call 911 or the text 741-741 to speak with a trained counselor at the Crisis Text Line.

Whether the trauma occurred recently or in the past, reaching out for help can lead to transformative change. Additionally, support groups and community resources can offer a sense of belonging and understanding, allowing individuals to share their stories and experiences with others who have walked a similar path. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, and with the right support, healing and reclaiming a sense of well-being is possible.