Throughout our lives, most of us experience a wide range of events – some good, some neutral, some bad, and some that are truly horrific. While all of these events have the potential to affect how we understand ourselves and the world around us, our brains are wired in such a way that negative events have a greater impact on our perceptions and reactions than their positive counterparts. It’s a survival mechanism, to ensure that we don’t have to learn twice that fire is hot and a growling dog can bite. In other words, our brains are designed to learn from traumatic experiences, as painful as some of those lessons might be.

Sometimes, but not all of the time, traumatic events can lead to the development of a mental health condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. We will talk about PTSD in Part II of this mini-series. In this first blog post, we will discuss the different types of trauma that can lead to the development of PTSD and related conditions.  

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma occurs when a person experiences a single event that is profoundly distressing, harmful, or has the potential to be harmful (or fatal), such as a car accident, a mass shooting, a natural disaster, or a house fire. Merely witnessing one of these events can be distressing enough to be traumatic. It’s also important to note that an event that is hurtful, but not harmful, is not considered acute trauma. To be regarded as acute trauma, the brain needs to register the event as a serious threat to one’s safety and wellbeing.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma can develop when a person experiences prolonged and/or repeated harmful or extremely distressing events over an extended period of time. Examples of complex trauma include domestic abuse, repeated sexual abuse, severe childhood neglect, and growing up in a war zone or violent neighborhood. Even bullying can be considered complex trauma if the person experiencing it believes they are in danger with no means of escape. 

Generational Trauma

Research on how trauma affects the children of those who experienced it has shown that the effects of trauma can last for generations. While some of the impact appears linked to how trauma shapes the way trauma survivors parent their children, there is also emerging evidence suggesting that trauma (especially complex trauma) can actually change our DNA, which then gets passed down to our children genetically. 

Vicarious Trauma

People in certain professions – for example, medical professionals and therapists who specialize in working with trauma survivors – can end up feeling as though they have absorbed some of the pain and emotional impact of the trauma others have described to them. While this may not lead to PTSD, it can have other emotional and physical consequences, and can negatively impact how the person thinks about themselves and the world. 

Chronic Stressors

Sometimes referred to as chronic trauma, chronic stressors refer to stressful life events that occur repeatedly and over an extended period of time. Whereas complex trauma involves a series of events that cause serious harm (or the threat of serious harm), chronic stressors are events or situations that create ongoing pain and/or uncertainty but do not pose a serious threat to the person’s life or safety. In this category, we might place things like prolonged financial stress, growing up with parents who fight all the time, or being in a toxic work environment for months or years. While there is still some controversy as to whether these kinds of situations should be considered traumatic, most therapists will tell you that people who have experienced a chronic stressor such as those I just mentioned can end up with similar physical and psychological symptoms as people who have experienced complex trauma, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree. Moreover, the same interventions therapists use to treat PTSD often seem to be effective at treating symptoms resulting from chronic stress. 

Little ‘t’ Trauma

You may hear therapists refer to certain life events or situations as “little ‘t’ traumas,” not because they are insignificant, but because they typically don’t make the same neurological impact as the “big ‘T’ trauma” (which is the same thing as acute trauma). While they may not come with a risk of death or bodily harm, these events can be quite painful. Examples of little ‘t’ traumas might include things like the ending of a long-term relationship, the death of an elderly parent, the loss of a pet, or sustaining a concussion while playing a sport. The list of little ‘t’ traumas is a long one, and literally all of us will experience multiple little ‘t’ traumas over the course of our lives. How we come to understand these negative experiences can make a big impact on how we think of ourselves and the world in which we live, but they do not typically lead to the development of PTSD. 

Healing From Trauma

It is important to remember that suffering is an unavoidable part of the human experience and we are born with the innate capacity to heal and learn from these painful experiences. One of the best ways to start the healing process is to talk about your traumatic experience with someone you trust. While this someone certainly doesn’t have to be a therapist, mental health professionals are trained to help you process the negative events in your life in a way that allows you to grow from them, becoming more resilient and able to face painful experiences in the future. 

If you are suffering from the after-effects of trauma and would like to speak with one of our qualified mental health professionals at LynLake Centers for Wellbeing, please contact us today. We are here to help. 

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