Differentiating Trauma

Published on 11th August, 2021

Differentiating Trauma

Differentiating the types of Trauma

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as an emotional response to an event (or series of events) that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally threatening or harmful. This could have lasting adverse effects on the emotional, physical and social well-being of the individual and affect the individual’s functioning.

Types of Trauma

1) Acute Trauma

Acute Trauma results from a single stressful or traumatic event. Being involved in an accident, experiencing a natural disaster, acquiring a medical injury or being a victim of rape could lead to acute trauma.

We may have experienced more than one event in our lives. However in acute trauma, the focus of treatment would be the event that lead to the following symptoms:

  • Panic or extreme anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Irritation
  • Dissociation or feeling disconnected from self and surroundings
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Increase in suspiciousness
  • Lack of self care
  • Inability to concentrate

2) Chronic Trauma

Chronic Trauma results from repeated and prolonged exposure to stressful events. This could be multiple events of the same type (i.e., ongoing war, being involved in combat, ongoing abuse, domestic violence) or a series of events of different types (i.e., being exposed to different or unrelated natural disasters).

As a result of chronic trauma, an individual may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Unpredictable emotional outbursts
  • Feeling confused, angry, anxious or sad
  • Physical symptoms such as headache or nausea
  • Flashbacks or intrusive memories
  • Impaired memories
  • Employing coping mechanisms such as denial about problems or rationalisation of event such as abuse
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sleep patterns

3) Complex Trauma

Complex Trauma is often used to describe children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events, mostly of an invasive and interpersonal nature. It could also be used to refer to the effects of this exposure. In complex trauma, events are severe and pervasive. Examples include exposure to adverse childhood experiences such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and neglect.

In complex trauma, the perpetrator is usually a caregiver or a trusted adult/individual. Since most of the exposure would occur in childhood, the child develops a sense of betrayal and has difficulties forming a secure attachment with the caregiver. This would translate to difficulties in forming interpersonal relationships in adulthood. Effects of complex trauma may include:

  • Difficulty developing a healthy attachment with caregivers and in interpersonal relationships in adulthood
  • Trouble managing and expressing emotions which results in overreaction or inappropriate reactions to situations
  • Recurrent physical ailments such as headaches, stomach aches
  • Being unresponsive or detached in stressful situations
  • Hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells or touch
  • Dissociation or looking “spaced-out”
  • Struggles with attention and concentrating on work
  • Difficulties with development of language or abstract reasoning skills
  • Low self-esteem and poor self-image
  • Engagement in high risk behaviours such as substance use, self-harm or unsafe sexual practices


Seeking the right help in time is important. Research has shown how trauma effects changes in our brain chemistry and hence influencing our physiological, emotional and behavioural responses.

Exposure to stressful events evokes our body’s fight-flight-freeze response to promote our survival. With children, exposure to chronic or complex trauma can leave them in a constantly highly aroused state. This means constantly high level of stress related hormones such as cortisol being released. Consequently, development of brain areas involved in emotional regulation and self-control are affected.

A qualified professional can help develop the right treatment plan that suits the individual’s needs and strengths.