Types of Trauma, their Impact on Mental Health and How to Get Support

Trauma is an inevitable part of life, yet it’s effects on our mental health can be devastating. It can occur as a result of a wide range of events, including abuse, violence, natural disasters, accidents, or serious illness – impacting people differently depending on what type of trauma it is. Understanding different types of trauma can help individuals and their loved ones recognise the signs and symptoms of trauma and seek appropriate help when needed.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a distressing experience that affects a person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Whether an event is deemed traumatic is defined by the ‘subjective experience’ of it rather than the event itself. Trauma is a psychological response to an event that causes intense fear, helplessness, or horror. It can occur as a result of a single incident or prolonged exposure to a stressful situation. Trauma can also result from the perception of a life-threatening or overwhelming event, such as a serious illness or injury.

Trauma can have a significant impact on a person’s mental and physical health, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, and physical ailments. While not all experiences of trauma lead to the development of mental health issues, it is essential to understand the different types of trauma and their effects.

Different Types of Trauma:

There are several types of trauma that can be classified based on the nature, severity, and duration of the event. The following are the most frequent types of trauma:

1. Acute Trauma:

Acute trauma can happen to anyone, at any time. It refers to a sudden and unexpected event that causes physical or emotional harm, leaving a person feeling overwhelmed, scared, and unsure of what to do next.

Examples of Acute trauma might include:

  • Natural Disasters: Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can cause physical harm, displacement, and emotional distress.
  • Accidents: Car accidents, falls, and other unexpected events may result in physical injuries as well as psychological trauma.
  • Violence: Assault, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other forms of violence can cause physical and emotional trauma.
  • Medical Procedures: Surgeries or medical emergencies like a heart attack or medical tests, and other medical procedures may lead to physical and emotional pain for those involved.

2. Chronic Trauma:

Chronic trauma refers to the experience of repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, such as ongoing physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or living in a warzone. Unlike acute trauma which occurs quickly, chronic trauma can occur over an extended period of time and leads to complex symptoms affecting one’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Some common examples of chronic trauma include childhood abuse, domestic violence, and long-term exposure to community violence.

3. Complex Trauma:

Complex trauma is a form of trauma that results from exposure to multiple and/or prolonged traumatic events, particularly during childhood or adolescence. It can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s mental and physical wellbeing, leading to symptoms like anxiety, depression, dissociation and difficulty controlling emotions.

Examples of complex trauma may include:

  • Repeated verbal, physical or emotional abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect and attachment trauma
  • Childhood emotional or sexual abuse
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Repeated community violence
  • Coercion, and domestic physical abuse
  • Long-term misdiagnosis of a health problem
  • Bullying at home, at school or at work
  • Overly strict upbringing
  • Religious trauma

4. Secondary or Vicarious Trauma:

Secondary trauma is a form of trauma that affects individuals who are indirectly exposed to traumatic events, such as healthcare providers, first responders, and therapists. Secondary trauma can cause symptoms similar to those experienced by individuals who directly experience trauma, such as PTSD and anxiety. This type of trauma can occur when someone speaks to someone who has experienced a trauma or witnessed a trauma first hand. The person listening can experience secondary trauma and experience symptoms experienced by the person explaining the trauma.

5. Historical, Collective, or Intergenerational Trauma:

Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission of trauma across generations as a result of systemic oppression such as racism, slavery, forced relocation, genocide or war. It can also be a result of cultural displacement or forced assimilation. This type of trauma can be passed down through families and communities, impacting individuals who have not directly experienced the traumatic events themselves. This can result in a sense of cultural disconnection and a lack of understanding about one’s own cultural identity.

Individuals who experience this form of trauma may experience mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety, addiction, or physical health issues. It can also lead to a sense of hopelessness and despair, as well as a lack of trust in authority figures and institutions.

Symptoms of Trauma:

Trauma can cause a range of emotional and physical responses, depending on the nature, and severity of the traumatic event. Here are some of the most frequently experienced symptoms of trauma:

Emotional symptoms include:

(a) Depression:

  • Prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Changes in appetite and sleeping patterns

(b) Anxiety:

  • Feeling constantly worried, nervous, or on edge
  • Panic attacks or sudden feelings of fear
  • Avoidance of people, places, or situations that trigger anxiety
  • Irrational fears or phobias

(c) Mood Swings:

  • Frequent and intense mood swings
  • Outbursts of anger, irritability, or aggression
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviours

(d) Avoidance:

  • Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Diminished interest in social activities
  • Loss of trust in others

(e) Hyperarousal:

  • Constantly feeling on edge or easily startled
  • Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
  • Hypervigilance or constantly being aware of potential danger
  • Physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, and trembling

Physical manifestations of trauma may include:

(a) Chronic Pain:

  • Headaches, back pain, or muscle tension
  • Stomach pain, nausea, or digestive issues
  • Fatigue or low energy levels
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

(b) Sensory Symptoms:

  • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, or touch
  • Changes in vision or hearing
  • Feeling detached from one’s surroundings
  • Dissociative episodes or feeling detached from oneself

(c) Physical Reactions:

  • Increased heart rate or blood pressure
  • Sweating, shaking, or trembling
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Muscle tension or stiffness

(d) Changes in Eating and Sleeping Patterns:

  • Changes in appetite or weight gain/loss
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Nightmares or recurring dreams related to the traumatic event
  • Sleepwalking or night terrors

(e) Cognitive Changes: 

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • nightmares, and flashbacks of the event
  • confusion
  • difficulty with memory and concentration,

Impact of Trauma on Mental Health:

Trauma can have a significant effect on mental health, with some individuals developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that can cause flashbacks, nightmares and intense feelings of anxiety or fear. Furthermore, some may experience complex PTSD which is characterized by symptoms such as difficulty regulating emotions, distorted self-image, and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.

Trauma can also increase the risk of developing personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which can cause instability in relationships, self-image, and emotions; and Dependent Personality Disorder, which can lead to an overwhelming need for validation and reassurance from others.

The effects of trauma on mental health can be long-lasting and can greatly impact an individual’s overall quality of life. Seeking professional help from a psychologist or therapist can help individuals work through their trauma and learn healthy coping mechanisms.

Treatment for Trauma:

Fortunately, there are several effective treatments available to help individuals cope with trauma and its effects on mental health. Here are some of the most commonly used treatments for trauma:

1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):

CBT is a type of therapy that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors. It is often used to treat anxiety and depression and has been found to be effective in treating trauma-related disorders such as PTSD.

2. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR):

EMDR is a type of therapy that helps individuals process traumatic memories and reduce the intensity of associated emotions and physical sensations. It involves eye movements, tapping, or other forms of bilateral stimulation to facilitate the processing of traumatic memories.

3. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT):

DBT is a type of therapy that focuses on teaching individuals’ skills to manage distress and difficult emotions, improve interpersonal relationships, and increase mindfulness. It has been found to be effective in treating trauma-related disorders such as PTSD and borderline personality disorder.

4. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT):

TF-CBT is a type of therapy specifically designed to help children and adolescents who have experienced trauma. It involves teaching coping skills, processing traumatic memories, and improving parent-child communication.

5. Medications:

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be helpful in managing the symptoms of trauma-related disorders. However, they should be used in conjunction with therapy and under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

6. Alternative Therapies:

Alternative therapies such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, and art therapy have also been found to be effective in reducing the symptoms of trauma-related disorders.

Author:  U Shah


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