Types of trauma can be broken down into 7 categories and can occur – and affect us – in many different ways. Join us as we learn about how trauma occurs in this first part of a four part series on addressing trauma.
The 7 types of trauma are one of the most important things you can learn in your life. Trauma is a recurring theme at Psychedelic Support for endless reasons. We’ve written a few blogs about trauma, and there will be more.
Trauma is an expansive topic and there are a ton of subtopics that comprise trauma. If you haven’t read any of our other blogs about trauma, please keep the following facts in mind.
70% of people will experience trauma at least once in their life. The traumatized person’s resulting traumatic effects and symptoms can be debilitating. Often, these symptoms set off a cascade of negative emotions, events, and pain which ripples out to loved ones, family, friends, and into the community at-large.
Unhealed trauma has a huge detrimental effect on the world and American society. The effects of trauma reach a massive scale, and we’re just barely beginning to understand the consequences.
Like anything else, one of the first and best things to do is to learn about a topic. This is especially true regarding trauma, as it lacks wide societal awareness and education.
With this in mind, let’s learn about the 2 categories of trauma, followed by the 7 types of trauma.
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Types of Trauma: Indirect Trauma and Direct Trauma
There are 2 main categories of trauma – indirect and direct. They’re straightforward and likely mean what you assume.
Indirect trauma is when a person doesn’t physically experience or witness the traumatic event, and it still has an impact. Examples of indirect trauma would be watching a school shooting or 9/11 on television. Another is hearing about a loved one, family member, etc. getting suddenly injured or having an accident on the job.
The other common example of indirect trauma is vicarious trauma. This is common among trauma responders and people working with trauma survivors. For example, a therapist with regular exposure to traumatic stories and firsthand accounts may suffer vicarious trauma. This will be discussed more in-depth later.
Direct trauma is when a person experiences a trauma that’s happening directly to them or they are witnessing the traumatic event in-person. Direct trauma occurs directly to us. This can be a result of either being involved firsthand in the traumatic event or witnessing it.
This accounts for the main difference between direct trauma and indirect trauma. Direct trauma is a firsthand experience. Indirect trauma is a secondhand experience.
Now let’s learn about the 7 types of trauma.
The 7 Types of Trauma
You may find articles or videos noting 5 types of trauma. While there are 5 predominant types, after some digging, other types emerge. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to defining and classifying trauma. There’s no official classification for psychological trauma types to date.
Therefore, some lists of trauma types consist of 3, some 5, and others, 7. Moreover, some of the names get swapped in and out for alternatives. Do keep in mind that we are discussing emotional, mental and psychological trauma. We are not referring to trauma in the most common context, which is trauma due to physical injury.
With that, here are the 7 types of trauma. The first 5 are considered the most common types of trauma: Big “T” trauma, small “T” trauma, acute trauma, chronic trauma, and complex trauma.
1. Big “T” Trauma or Type 1
Big “T” trauma, also referred to as “Type 1” trauma, “acute trauma” or “large T” trauma, happens due to a single incident. The incident often arises out of the blue. Acute trauma is a one-off event that usually has a limited time.
As Psychology Today defines it, “Big T” trauma “…is distinguished as an extraordinary and significant event that leaves the individual feeling powerless and possessing little control in their environment.”
Some examples of what provokes “Big T” trauma are:
- Severe illness or injury
- Violent assault
- Sexual assault
- Traumatic loss
- Mugging or robbery
- Being a victim of or witness to violence
- Witnessing a terrorist attack
- Witnessing a natural disaster
- Road accident
- Plane accident
- Military combat incident
- Psychiatric hospitalization
- Medical trauma
- Post-suicide attempt trauma
- Life threatening illness or diagnosis
Exposure to this single, extreme, distressing event or experience sufficiently threatens a person’s emotional or physical security and may overwhelm their emotional response capacity.
When a person’s emotional response is overwhelmed, avoidance behaviors arise. The person conducts themselves in ways that minimize distress and reduce reminders of the traumatic event. Do not underestimate the consequences of acute trauma.
Psychology Today warns “Big T” trauma is “…often enough to cause severe distress and interferes with an individual’s daily functioning. This effect is intensified the longer avoidance behaviors endure and treatment is circumvented.”
2. Little or Small “T” Trauma
“Little t” or “small t” traumas are everyday experiences and to be expected as a part of life. However, despite their garden-variety label, they can still be quite traumatic. “Small t” trauma doesn’t get as much attention and thus it isn’t discussed as much as other trauma types.
Examples might include:
- Loss of a loved one (not traumatic bereavement)
- Moving to a new house
- Losing a job
- Interpersonal conflict
- Abrupt or extended relocation
- Legal trouble
- Financial worries or difficulty
These types of traumatic events surpass our ability to cope and disrupt healthy, emotional functioning. “Small t” traumas aren’t distinguished by being body- or life-threatening. However they are considered ego-threatening, as the event or experience leaves the person feeling helpless.
“Small t” traumas tend to be a slippery trap. Because these traumas are more common and perceived as an “everyday occurrence”, the person experiencing it dismisses the event more readily. People often disregard the difficulty. Why?
The reason “…is sometimes due to the tendency to rationalize the experience as common, and therefore cognitively shame oneself for any reaction that could be construed as an overreaction or being “dramatic.”
Like its “Big T” trauma brother, “small t” traumas result in this avoidance reaction too, although less exaggerated. On other occasions, a person may not realize the full, disturbing impact the event has had on them. This effect can sometimes be amplified by therapists unfortunately, due to poor understanding of the event’s influence on a person’s emotional health.
The worst aspect of “small t” traumas are their accumulation. A one-off, “small t” trauma may not cause marked distress. However, when multiple “small t” traumas pile up, especially in a brief time period, the probability that they will cause emotional functioning problems and distress increases. We can’t avoid these types of trauma in our lives.
Think of yourself like a car. When you drive your car around or on the highway, your windshield gets dirty. Every so often, you need a squeegee at a gas station because the wiper fluid doesn’t cut it. You have to clean off the windshield thoroughly. Furthermore, it’s best to clean your windshield before it gets too covered and dirty, as it may impede your vision and cause an accident.
The same goes for the psyche. The psyche needs to be squeegeed clean and fresh after accumulating the dirt and grime of life. This is a common reason many people choose to get psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. These therapies can help to soothe and heal lifelong accumulation of “small t” traumas or ones that have piled up in recent history.
3. Chronic or Repetitive Trauma
Chronic trauma, sometimes also called “repetitive trauma”, stems from exposure to multiple, ongoing, and/or prolonged distressing, traumatic events over an extended period of time. In turn, these events overwhelm the emotional response. In some cases, these events can layer on top of each other.
Examples of these highly stressful events that occur over and over again and prolong exposure include:
- Receiving regular treatment for a long-term, serious illness
- Sexual abuse
- Domestic violence
- Exposure to extreme situations, such as a war, being a refugee, homelessness, etc.
This type of trauma may also refer to a situation in which the violence or distressing experience isn’t directed at, yet surrounds, a person. Examples of this would be living in a violent neighborhood, a war torn region, or an apartheid state.
Several instances of acute trauma, in addition to untreated acute trauma, may develop into chronic trauma. The onset of symptoms may only appear after an extended period of time, perhaps years after the event.
Symptoms can range from trust issues affecting job and relationship stability, to anxiety, extreme anger, fatigue, nausea, etc. Repetitive/chronic trauma overlaps with complex trauma.
4. Complex Trauma or Type 2 or Developmental
Complex or “Type 2” trauma arises from prolonged exposure to ongoing, overwhelming, distressing events/experiences. This most often happens within the context of an interpersonal relationship. A common hallmark of complex trauma is its origins in early stages of development or childhood, although it can happen at other times as well.
Complex trauma arises “…from multiple, chronic and prolonged overwhelming traumatic events/experiences which are compromising and most often within the context of an interpersonal relationship.”
People suffering complex trauma are often childhood abuse survivors. Here are some of the many factors that may provoke trauma either as a baby, child, adolescent or adult:
- Physical abuse or assault
- Sexual abuse or assault
- Emotional abuse
- Witnessing violence or death
- Coercion or betrayal. This often occurs within the child’s care giving system and interferes with healthy attachment and development.
- Sibling abuse
- Domestic, family violence
- Emotional neglect and attachment trauma
- Verbal abuse
- Long term misdiagnosis of a health problem
- Bullying at home, school, or in a work setting
- Physical neglect
- Overly strict upbringing, sometimes religious
- Civil unrest
This type of repetitive trauma over a period of time “…is often part of an interpersonal relationship where someone might feel trapped emotionally or physically. They may also feel as if they have been coerced or powerless to prevent the trauma.” Ultimately, the complex trauma interferes with health attachment and development.
The complex trauma develops out of these various, multiple distressing experiences or events. Because these events occur in an interpersonal context, it leads to the person feeling trapped. Ultimately, this impacts a person’s mind in a severe manner, leading to poor overall health, instability in relationships, and performance issues at school or work.
Quite often, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) is associated closely with Type 2 trauma.
5. Insidious Trauma
Insidious trauma is a subtype of chronic trauma. Insidious trauma refers to:
…the daily incidents of marginalization, objectification, dehumanization, intimidation, et cetera that are experienced by members of groups targeted by racism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, and groups impacted by poverty.
Effects of this type of trauma may not be overtly body- or life-threatening and can still have adverse effects on the spirit and soul. Insidious trauma sometimes shares common ground with cultural/historical/collective/intergenerational trauma.
6. Cultural, Historical, Collective, or Intergenerational Trauma
This type of trauma gathers group or collective trauma under one umbrella term, with slight variations in criteria and semantics. This type of trauma tends to have less awareness and can also be broken up into individual definitions and types.
This type of trauma generally creates emotional and/or psychological adversity that affects various cultural groups, communities, and generations. Learned, adaptive coping patterns may be handed down through generations. Examples of this kind of trauma might include:
- Forcible removal from a family or community
This type of intergenerational trauma describes the psychological or emotional adversity and distress that people endure living with other people who have experienced trauma. As noted above, this occurs during slavery. It may also occur in the same family, for example if multiple generations have had combat experience, are alcoholics, or suffered child abuse, among other examples.
Traumatized people are hurt with an emotional wound. All too often, traumatized people hurt others. Hurt people hurt people. Thus, the original trauma may create a multigenerational domino effect. In theory, a grandparent can be traumatized, then traumatize their child, who in turn, traumatizes the grandchild.
From there, it’s easy to make the next logical step to historical trauma. Historical trauma “…is a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations emanating from massive group trauma.” Once again, the causes of historical trauma are similar: war, slavery, genocide, etc.
7. Vicarious or Secondary Trauma
Vicarious trauma, also known as “secondary trauma” falls into the category of indirect trauma. The terms “vicarious” and “secondary” are often both used interchangeably to refer to indirect trauma.
In the broader sense of vicarious trauma, the events which trigger it:
…can occur by viewing graphic news reports, gruesome or frightening television shows and various other media, hearing a detailed traumatic story from another person, viewing crime scene evidence, working in a courtroom, attending a debriefing or a conference where disturbing images are described or shown, and many other ways in which we can be indirectly affected by the content or visuals of some other living creature’s suffering.
The JFK assassination, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and 9/11 are prominent examples.
Additionally, vicarious trauma happens when someone speaks to a person who has experienced or witnessed a trauma firsthand. The listener can experience vicarious trauma and may even share the same symptoms as the person explaining the trauma.
Certain types of professionals who have high-stress jobs in fields exposing them to trauma are at risk. Those who may be at risk include: psychotherapists, shelter staff, lawyers, healthcare professionals, clergy, journalists, trauma researchers, first responders, prosecutors, child abuse investigators, judges, animal shelter workers, and more.
In these types of professions, it’s important to note that individuals are susceptible to what’s referred to as “burnout”, “compassion fatigue” or “empathic strain.” This emotional exhaustion can lead to the same types of negative coping mechanisms characterized by direct trauma: difficulty in personal and professional relationships, avoidance, difficulty sleeping, alcohol in excess, etc.
Consequently, it’s of the utmost importance for people in these professions to be self-aware of traumatic symptoms. If this is not the case, loved ones and family members must be aware of traumatic symptoms.
If you’re interested in learning more about trauma, especially the basic types, watch this Psych2Go video the 5 Types of Unhealed Trauma.
Now that you understand trauma types and can be an armchair psychotherapist, let’s have a quick look at an additional trauma type, not often discussed.
8. BONUS Types of Trauma – Organizational Trauma
Just like individuals, organizations can and do suffer traumatic events and experiences as well. Organizational trauma occurs when an entire organization is affected by a traumatic event or experience.
Traumatic events in organizations expose employees to feeling bewildered, distrustful, insecure, or even unsafe. Depending on the type of traumatic event an organization suffers, the trauma can be drastic and last months, or even years. Again, much like individuals, organizations can suffer indirect or direct trauma, as well as sudden and/or cumulative trauma.
A lone, devastating event, the effects of many distressing events, or the cumulative impact of trauma over time can all inflict traumatic stress on an organization. So, what are some examples of organizational traumatic events?
- Losing an executive director
- Major budget crisis leading to lay-offs
- Fighting between staff members with no healing following
- Layoffs, mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing
- Violence in the workplace, death, or serious injury
- Natural disaster, fire, flood, etc.
- Major reorganizations
- Turnover of senior leadership or sudden loss of key talent
In the wake of such events, an organizational environment can be created that erodes the workers’ collective psyche. Their sense of well-being, self-esteem, health, and security can all be undermined. Worse yet, this can lead to loss of employee engagement.
Rather than solely affecting individual employees, the trauma ripples outward and becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The trauma “…negatively impacts service delivery, compromises work with clients, and weakens the organization’s ability to respond to internal and external challenges. Over time the unhealed effects of trauma and traumatization compromise the organization’s fundamental health.”
If the organizational trauma goes unhealed, detrimental behaviors take hold within the system of people and employees, following the distressing incident. As people’s behavior shifts from health to unhealthy, certain maladaptive behaviors surface. Organizational behavior declines leading to “People pleasing, aggression, or isolation, and siloing – all human responses to trauma – start to become the norm, the habituated response to many stimuli.”
As these behaviors solidify within the group, the unhealed trauma manifests in 7 organizational dysfunctions:
- Breakdown in communication
- Breakdown in trust
- Breakdown in productivity
- Workers feel powerless
- Workers feel hopeless
- Shake-up in roles and responsibilities
- A loss (Loss of sense of mission, purpose, culture, etc.)
To learn more about organizational trauma, have a look at this excellent resource guide.
Now I Know the 7 Types of Trauma, What’s Next?
As we have mentioned before, trauma is a complex and expansive topic. One of the subtopics we have not covered is how to treat and heal trauma. If you need a therapist or support group, please reach out to therapists in the Psychedelic Support Network or Community Directory.