Most of us have at least one traumatic event in our lifetime, with many of us being exposed to multiple traumatic. We often blame ourselves for feeling the way we do after experiencing a difficult childhood.
Understanding the 3 types of trauma would explain why we are affected the way we are and why others, even though they have gone through difficulties, appear not to be as affected by their trauma.
There are 3 types of trauma with varying degrees of symptoms depending on the experiences of the victim. I will first explain what trauma is and then explain the 3 types of trauma – Acute, Chronic and Complex.
What is Trauma
Trauma happens when an experience or an event overwhelms an individual. It happens when you don’t have the coping mechanisms to manage what you are going through.
In my private practice, I support individuals who have gone through childhood trauma but one of the main challenges I find is many people can’t accept or find it difficult to accept that their experiences as a child were traumatic. Not that I try to put words or things into their minds that weren’t there, to begin with.
This is because we often don’t appreciate the fact that as children, we don’t have the coping mechanism to manage those experiences. No matter how inconsequential as adults we think those experiences are. For a child, in those situations, we can’t cope so we experience trauma.
Three Types of Trauma in Childhood
There are three types of trauma – Acute, Chronic, or Complex.
Acute trauma can result from a single incident in the child. This results often results in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Here you as the child clearly understand what and why you are traumatised. You could have PTSD from either experiencing the trauma yourself or witnessing it.
Examples of Acute trauma in childhood that results from a single incident include witnessing a crime, being involved in an accident, the loss of a loved one in difficult circumstances, a natural disaster, etc.
You tend to experience symptoms within a few weeks of the single incident where as a child or adolescent you may have nightmares, wet the bed, flashbacks, want to avoid certain situations, etc.
The final set of symptoms refers to finding yourself extra sensitive to your environment where you are almost constantly on guard. This is called hypervigilance and here you may also be very sensitive to people’s body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.
However, acute trauma could easily become more chronic or complex if as a child or adolescent you did not get the emotional support you needed.
We can’t stop things from happening to us but if your family has the emotional maturity to cope with those difficulties, you would experience acute trauma symptoms which is normal but you would recover soon after.
Chronic trauma results from multiple and prolonged exposures to highly stressful events. Examples include cases of exposure to war, repeated abuse, repeated natural disasters, bullying, or domestic violence.
Chronic trauma can take years to come to the surface and often causes you to engage in disruptive coping strategies. You may also feel really overwhelmed by your symptoms that you try to avoid them by denying they exist, avoiding them by sometimes using substances. You may even find yourself rationalising your experiences by explaining or justifying them.
If you are suffering from Chronic trauma, you could experience any of the following problems:
Misperceptions of the individual’s environment
Lack of sleep
Chronic Trauma is normal because in many ways you as a child or adolescent are reacting to difficult things you have experienced. What helps you cope with your trauma and not have it develop into more complex trauma depends on the emotional maturity of your family and how able, regardless of what they are going through to support you in your recovery.
However, the ability to bounce back from difficult events and chronic trauma requires that we have enough support in the form of a loving family or caring community member who is invested in our well-being.
Complex trauma (Complex PTSD)
Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature. You would have experienced multiple, varied trauma from someone you knew well i.e. a parent, a number of individuals, or someone in the community you looked up to.
Complex trauma can arise as a result of developmental trauma, which includes childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, having a parent with untreated mental illness, and having a parent who abuses alcohol or other substances.
If you add those problems in your family to additional problems that life often throws at us i.e. natural disasters, bereavement, job losses, etc. Our trauma can become complex trauma.
We need the love and support of our parents as children to help us navigate life’s difficulties. If that was absent or inconsistent for whatever reason, it would leave us scarred from the trauma that we experience.
This is why you may see two children going through the same thing. One would recover quickly the other would experience lifelong difficulties.
I explain more about Complex PTSD here and explain the 4 different types of trauma responses. The types of trauma responses explain how it affects you.
How To Get Help Dealing with the 3 types of trauma
The great news is that anyone who suffers from any kind of trauma can recover. I can help and I know how you feel. I am proud to offer the highest quality care available to help you live a better life. If you are struggling with a substance abuse problem, I can help with that as well.
If you have already tried treatment before, that is not a problem at all. It is important to try a variety of treatment methods to help you grow and heal.
What to do next
Feel free to share with someone else that you believe needs therapy. You never know that this may help them to make their minds up!