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What are the 3 types of trauma?

When we think about trauma, we may think of war, natural disasters, severe abuse, refugees losing everything, and other highly impactful events. Not all trauma, however, is like these examples. Trauma can consist of things like bullying, adverse childhood experiences, medical or chronic health conditions, violence, and more. The APA (American Psychological Asoscation) has defined 3 main types of trauma:

Acute, Chronic, and Complex.

Let’s explore each one of these types of trauma. Why? Because it’s estimated that 60% of adults have had traumatic family issues during childhood or have experienced abuse. That means if you’re in a room of ten people, likely 6 of you have experienced trauma. Trauma is a lot more common than we think.


When someone experiences a one-time, life-threatening event this can be categorized as acute trauma. A lot of TV shows thrive off of this type of trauma in their stories—think any crime scene TV show like CSI or Criminal Minds.

But, this isn’t a trauma that just happens in the media. It’s real and can have lasting effects on a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and sense of safety.

Acute trauma can come from events like:

  • Sexual assault or rape

  • Physical altercation

  • Car accident

  • Serious injury

  • Traumatic birth experience/Emergency deliveries

  • Natural disaster

  • Witnessing a violent event

After a traumatic event, people process their experience. Common symptoms include:

  • Excessive anxiety or panic (panic attacks)

  • Being in a state of shock/denial

  • Feeling sad, hopeless

  • Feeling guilty and/or confused

  • Increased irritability and anger

  • Lack of trust in others. Feeling distant/disconnected from others.

  • Inability to focus

Some people, however, will not show any of these responses at all. Some may even go years without symptoms, and then symptoms may show up weeks or months after the event.


This type of trauma is prolonged and ongoing. It’s something that usually lasts for several weeks, months, or even years. Frequently, chronic trauma occurs in the context of relationships (intimate partner violence, childhood abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, etc.) The more repeated trauma a person experiences, likely the harder it will become for them to trust others.

Did you know that trauma gets stored in our bodies? Sometimes in the form of muscle tension, disease, or physical injuries.

Animals, after a life-threatening event, will “shake off” the negative energy caused by the event. They literally “shake off” their trauma. Watch Fido and Spotty the next time you set off fireworks or there’s an alarming noise; they may just shake afterwards. Shaking sends a signal to the brain telling it that the danger has passed, and the “fight-or-flight” system can turn off. We don’t do this very often as humans, and so sometimes trauma gets trapped in our bodies and can lead to physical and/or mental illnesses.


Complex trauma could be seen as a combination of the first two types of trauma with long-term emotional and physical symptoms. This is the most severe form of trauma.

People who have experienced complex trauma often had the trauma happen during childhood or in an intimate partner relationship. More research is showinger, however, that bullying in adolescence is also leading to cases of complex trauma.

In childhood, complex trauma can look like:

  • Neglect prolonged over time or child feeling abandoned

  • Lack of a secure attachment to child’s caretakers

  • Mental or chronic illnesses within the family

  • Extreme financial instability and distress

  • Abuse (verbal, physical, emotional, sexual)

  • Homelessness

  • Transitioning in-and-out of foster care systems

Even though this trauma is categorized as severe, many children are able to hide how they’re been affected. Though some children withdraw, bully, have panic attacks, experience grief, shock, and struggle in school, not all children exhibit symptoms. Children can present well to the outside world, but inwardly be really struggling with the negative effects of trauma.

Getting Help for Traumatic Experiences

Adults often find themselves trying to address and process trauma from their childhood much later in their adult years. The average person takes 11 years from the time of the trauma occurring to the actual event of seeking help for addressing the effects of that trauma. Sometimes, that can go up to 20 years for trauma involving sexual abuse.

Have you, or someone you love, experienced trauma? Don’t wait so many years to begin healing. People who wait to address the negative effects of their traumatic experiences often miss out on a lot of joy in life and deep meaningful relationships.

It’s extremely important to seek professional help to address, resolve, and move past traumatic experiences. At Dr. Christy Kane LLC, our highly trained professionals are here to help you heal and have experience in addressing all 3 types of trauma.

Contact us today to learn more 385-223-0777.


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