The Many Faces of Trauma

Trauma, which is experienced by 50-60 percent of the population, can alter the course of someone’s life, leaving lasting imprints on their mind and body. Whether stemming from a single devastating event or a series of distressing experiences, trauma manifests in various forms, each with its own unique challenges. In this article, we’ll delve into the different types of trauma, exploring their origins, symptoms, and the profound impact they have on people’s lives.

Different Types of Trauma

Primary trauma is an extremely distressing event – possibly even life threatening – that happens directly to you. Examples include child abuse or neglect; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; traumatic loss of a person or animal; vehicular or other types of physical accidents, including being attacked by an animal; traumatic brain injury; sexual assault or rape; physical assault; natural disaster; mass shooting; bullying/harassment; war/military combat; domestic violence; and terrorism. Primary traumas can be acute or chronic, which we’ll explore more in detail later in this article.

Secondary, or vicarious trauma, describes a type of trauma that you experience indirectly. This may be in the form of hearing about, reading about, or seeing the trauma happening to another person or animal. In fact, the term vicarious trauma was coined by psychologists Dr. Laurie Pearlman and Dr. Lisa McCann in 1989. They realized you didn’t have to personally experience a trauma to be impacted by it. This later formed the concept of compassion fatigue. In the nineties, trauma specialists including Charles Figley and Beth Stamm were researching why those who experienced vicarious trauma began to develop symptoms similar to PTSD. This led to the concept of secondary traumatic stress, which we know today to be a component of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is especially common in helping fields, including healthcare, law enforcement, and animal welfare. This type of trauma can also be acute or chronic.

Generational trauma, sometimes referred to as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma, was brought to the forefront in the sixties. It recognizes that not only do our ancestors pass down certain characteristics, such as eye color or personality quirks, but their trauma can also be encoded in the DNA that’s passed down from generation to generation. So for example, the effects of slavery, the Holocaust, the genocide of indigenous people, or other types of extreme stress can be felt in even the grandchildren or great grandchildren of those who experienced the trauma directly. Populations particularly at risk for generational trauma include those born into systemic racism, poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, addiction, and oppression.

Complex trauma refers to multiple traumatic events that generally occur in childhood and are perpetrated by someone the child should be able to trust, such as a caregiver. An example would be a child repeatedly witnessing domestic violence between her parents, is being molested by a family friend, and is being physically abused by her father. This type of trauma has long-lasting effects including problems with interpersonal relationships, guilt and shame, difficulty regulating emotions, and even dissociation (an uncontrollable response to trauma where the person becomes disconnected from their thoughts, emotions, surroundings, memories, and even their sense of identity.

Acute versus Chronic Trauma

Acute trauma refers to a single, distressing event that threatens one’s security (physical or emotional).  Afterward, whether we’re involved in (primary trauma), or hear about or witness (secondary trauma) a traumatic event, it’s common to experience a variety of emotional and physical responses. This is called the “acute stress reaction.” You can expect symptoms to last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and these symptoms may include:

· Repeatedly replaying the traumatic memory in your mind OR refusing to ever think about it (avoidance)

· Difficulty sleeping

· Feelings of guilt or self-blame

· Anxiety or hyper-arousal (always feeling “on guard)

· Sadness or grief

· Irritability or anger

· Feeling numb or detached

· Mood swings

· Recurring flashbacks or nightmares

· Trouble concentrating

· Avoidance of people or places that remind you of trauma

· Headache

· Stomach issues

· Anhedonia (the inability to enjoy activities you once found pleasurable, including sex)

· Change in world-view (intense fear of danger, difficulty trusting others, etc.)

· Questioning your faith in God or other higher power

Chronic trauma refers to repeated distressing events that threaten one’s security (physical or emotional) that may happen over a prolonged period of time. This could include repeated or long-term exposure to trauma, such as in the case of domestic violence or war, or being the victim of one trauma after another. For example, someone loses their job, then their spouse leaves, then they are diagnosed with cancer, and then they suffer a head injury from being involved in a car accident. With chronic trauma, symptoms may last for months or even years.

Symptoms of chronic trauma include:

· Trust issues

· Unstable relationships

· Emotional outbursts

· Extreme anger

· Anxiety

· Bodily complaints/pain

· Fatigue

· Flashbacks or nightmares

· Feelings of guilt or shame

· Dissociation

· Social isolation

· Risky or dangerous behaviors

· Low self-esteem

· Suicidal ideation

As you can see, having an understanding of various types of trauma can inform how you might be affected, and ultimately, how you can begin to heal. Remember, healing from trauma is a journey that often requires time, patience, and professional support. If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma, we can help. Reach out to us here to learn more or schedule an appointment with one of our trauma specialists.