Trauma 101 | psychology today


Take a look at the word sets below. Which set contains experiences that could lead to trauma?

Word set #1: War. Pandemic. The death. Flight. Grated.

Word set #2: Intimidation. Without a friend. Moving. Humiliation. Addiction.

If you answered word set #1 or word set #2, you are partially correct. If you answered both sets of words, you passed this trauma test.

What is a trauma?

When we think of trauma, most of us imagine endless suffering and pain caused by events such as a violent war, the experience of being a refugee, or the terminal illness of a loved one. . However, trauma can be caused by events whose impact seems much lower, such as a parent’s divorce, a drug-addicted loved one, or bullying. It can come in all shapes and sizes and can impact a spectrum of intensity based on mindset, coping skills, resilience, courage and personality.

In this sense, trauma can be defined as a single or multiple event that has a negative impact on physical, mental, emotional, social and/or general well-being. Traumatic memories, those that go against our understanding of the world and our place in it, can be triggered at any time. These memories can then have a profound impact on our thoughts, behaviors, actions, and overall well-being.

Source: Daria Sannikova/Pexels

Types of trauma

The three types of trauma recognized by mental health professionals include:

  • Acute—few events and usually of short duration.
  • Chronic — multiple, prolonged events that may change over time.
  • Complex – similar to chronic trauma with the added challenges of starting at a young age, impacting one or more developmental domains, and usually caused by a trusted adult (like those found in the longitudinal study by Felitti & Anda on Negative Childhood Experiences, or ACE).

Trauma can be endured directly, when the event was experienced first-hand, or indirectly, when the event was experienced through second-hand accounts. The study of epigenomes or chemical signatures that can be passed down from generation to generation and lead to hereditary trauma is related to vicarious trauma. While studies are still in development, this idea could possibly explain incongruous responses to stressful or adverse events.

Impact of trauma

The impact of trauma, whatever the type and extent, can be significant. According to Drs. In Felitti and Anda’s ACE study, trauma can lead to an increase in:

  • Mental health issues such as depression, suicide and social issues.
  • Physical health issues such as heart disease, obesity and decreased lifespan.
  • Risky behaviors such as substance abuse and school/work absenteeism (Felitti et al., 1998).

In addition, trauma can have an impact on:

  • Cognitions – processing, retention, bonding, executive functioning, etc.
  • Behaviors – maladaptive coping, difficulty dealing with strong emotions, lack of empathy, etc.
  • Brain – overreactivity in the amygdala, smaller prefrontal cortex, hyperarousal, etc.
  • Physiological health – sleep, diet, daily wellness habits, medical and somatic symptoms, etc.
  • Socio-emotional health – social withdrawal, low self-esteem and sense of self, difficulty criticizing, etc.

The magnitude of the trauma can be considerable, but it can be overcome. The first step is education. With a solid understanding of trauma, its roots and its impact, the path to overcoming trauma has begun.

To find a therapist, please visit Psychology Today’s Directory of Therapies.


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