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The 3 Types Of Trauma: Acute, Chronic, and Complex

Trauma is a word that’s been thrown around a lot, especially as of late. This often misunderstood emotional state is actually much more complex than most people think, and “trauma” can come in many forms.

In fact, there are three primary types of trauma that people can go through; acute, chronic, or complex.

This article will explore what trauma is and the differences between these three types of trauma.

What Is Emotional Trauma?

The first distinction that must be made when talking about trauma is physical vs. emotional. Physical trauma is an injury inflicted on a person, like a deep cut or a head injury. This is unrelated to the emotional trauma that comes from specific life events.

Put simply, emotional trauma is a psychological and emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. This experience could be as profound as physical abuse or as understated as being told that you aren’t as smart as your sibling. The objective severity of the trauma has little to do with its impact on your life. Rather, it is how you, as an individual, subjectively process the experience.[1]https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/

This is why trauma can show up differently for different people.

Traumatic events in childhood are even more impactful as your brain isn’t fully developed, making you much more suggestible. This is why when a parent tells their child that they aren’t as smart as their sibling, that child may grow up believing they’re stupid. And in more severe cases, such as physical or emotional abuse, that child may grow up feeling worthless or as though they deserve to be treated poorly.

Of course, from an objective standpoint, it’s easy to see that these things aren’t true. The problem is when a traumatic experience happens, it affects the brain, creating unhealthy neurological programming.

More specifically, trauma affects your brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for behavioral and emotional responses. This part of your brain is involved in your autonomic nervous system(ANS), which puts you into sympathetic mode (fight or flight). In fight or flight, your body is at the whims of your stress hormones, which keeps you in survival mode.[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/

Furthermore, trauma can impact your hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a complex system of neuroendocrine pathways that maintain the homeostasis of your nervous system. When this system isn’t developed properly, it can lead to problems with behavior and emotional responses in adulthood.[3]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2020.601939/full

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What Are The Three Types Of Trauma?

To better understand the nature of trauma, psychologists have created three categories that trauma can fall into: acute, chronic, or complex.

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Acute Trauma

Acute trauma results from a single adverse or stressful event. Examples of acute trauma include natural disasters, car accidents, victims of a crime, rape, or assault.

Although acute traumas only happen once, the effect is long-lasting and can have a negative impact on your psyche. When a single event is extreme enough to threaten your emotional or physical security, it can lodge in your brain as something you need to be on the lookout for, which keeps you in fight or flight mode.

Acute trauma is often overlooked by the individual because the logical brain will say, “That event happened, and it’s over, so I should just move on.” Unfortunately, the trauma response does not consult the logical brain as it is being developed, and this can lead to symptoms like anxiety, depression, insomnia, confusion, panic, aggression, and lack of self-care.

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma happens when an individual is exposed to multiple traumatic events or prolonged events like long-term abuse, domestic violence, war, or civil unrest. Chronic trauma can also take the form of several acute traumatic experiences happening back to back or due to unresolved acute trauma.

Due to the ongoing nature of chronic trauma, it tends to take hold on a deeper level than acute trauma. Furthermore, symptoms of chronic trauma may appear a long time after the chronic traumatic events. For example, many survivors of childhood abuse push down these memories until trauma symptoms start to present in adulthood.

Symptoms of chronic trauma may show up physically or emotionally. Some physical symptoms include headaches, fatigue, nausea, and body aches. Emotional symptoms of chronic trauma include emotional outbursts, anger, anxiety, flashbacks, and addictive behaviors.

Someone with unresolved chronic trauma may also have a hard time connecting with others due to deep trust issues.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is the result of multiple traumatic events, often related to invasive, interpersonal experiences. With complex trauma, the events experienced are typically prolonged and quite severe, such as sexual abuse or profound neglect. These events are also usually experienced in early life, impacting a child’s development and sense of self and safety. More often than not, these events occur with a child’s caregiver, which can imbed deep issues with trust (both in self and others).

Complex trauma can have a significant effect on an individual’s wellbeing, physically and emotionally. It can also create deep issues with interpersonal connection, much like chronic trauma built to an even greater extent.[4]https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/complex-trauma

Treatment Options For Trauma

There are several treatment options available for helping to resolve trauma. The type of treatment that works best will depend on the individual and the type of trauma they have experienced. In general, trauma treatment aims to get to the root of the neurological wiring that takes place at the time of the event. By working out trauma at its root, many people are able to see the event more objectively and unwire faulty belief systems that were born out of the adverse experience.

Some well-known treatments for trauma include:

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)

EMDR is a therapy that involves bilateral stimulation (side to side eye movement or alternative tapping, for example). During this stimulation, the patient is asked to recall traumatic memories as the therapist guides them through the event. EMDR is known to remove the stress associated with the traumatic event and help individuals process the event.[5]https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT works by helping people change their thought patterns associated with a traumatic event. It assists in developing coping mechanisms and improving emotional regulation around triggers. The cornerstone belief of CBT is that many psychological problems are rooted in unhealthy thinking patterns. Therefore, by changing the way your brain thinks and processes information, you can shift your state of being.[6]https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral

Somatic Therapies

Somatic therapies are an emerging type of trauma treatment, which hinges on the understanding that the mind and body are intimately connected. In somatic therapies, the practitioner focuses on the body to heal trauma in the mind. Somatic techniques often combine talk therapy with physical interventions like deep breathing, relaxation exercise, massage, or other types of movement.[7]https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/somatic-therapy

Medications

Many people who experience the fallout of trauma may turn to medication to assist with symptoms. Medication alone won’t heal the trauma, but it can enhance the quality of life, especially if the impact of trauma is severe. Many practitioners recommend using medication short-term as a bridge to keep you going while working through other types of therapies.

FAQ

What are signs of trauma?

Some common signs of unhealed trauma include anxiety, depression, irritability, anger, guilt, shame, and other emotional reactions that don’t have an obvious root. An inability to connect or maintain long-term relationships is a sign of more complex and/or chronic trauma.

How do you know if you have unresolved trauma?

Unresolved trauma can show up in a myriad of ways. Typically, events that trigger you into an exaggerated emotional response often point in the direction of unresolved trauma. The best way to determine if you have trauma that needs to be addressed is to work with a mental health professional.

What is the best treatment for trauma?

The most effective way to deal with trauma is working with trauma-focused therapies like EMDR, CBT, or somatic therapies with a trained practitioner. Trying to resolve trauma on your own can be very challenging and triggering and could even make things worse.

What is the connection between mental health and trauma?

Trauma can leave lasting impressions in your brain, creating neurological pathways that set you up for altered emotional responses. Some mental health challenges that may present with unresolved trauma include anxiety, depression, anger, violence, and general distrust or avoidance of intimacy.

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