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What is Trauma?

Trauma has become a buzzword given the recent advances in the field of psychology. We might know that we have experienced trauma—or we might be uncertain as to whether our experiences were traumatic. It is helpful to define trauma and to gain a better understanding of the different types of traumas that we can experience in our lifetime.

Trauma can be defined as an experience that overwhelms the nervous system but experiencing a trauma does not always lead to traumatization. Traumatization occurs when we do not have the support or resilience factors to start healing from the neurophysiological and somatic distress. If trauma symptoms (see below) last over a month, they may indicate posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You do not need a diagnosis to start trauma therapy with a registered counsellor. If you think you are experiencing trauma symptoms, seek professional support.

Trauma symptoms can occur after

· directly experiencing a traumatic event,

· witnessing a traumatic event, or

· learning that a traumatic event happened to someone that we feel close to.

Trauma symptoms can also occur from repeated or extreme exposure to traumatic events, as can happen to first responders. The different types of traumas we may experience are reviewed below. These categories align with Frank Anderson’s (2022) work in treating trauma.

Acute trauma or single incident trauma is the experience of a singular traumatic event, such as a first car accident or first experience of assault. About 70% of the population will experience an acute or single incident trauma in their lifetime (Anderson, 2022). It is possible to develop acute stress disorder within 3 days to a month after experiencing acute trauma. Symptoms include

· intense emotional reaction to the stressor,

· avoidance, reexperience of the traumatic event, and

· increased anxiety.

When these symptoms last more than a month, they may indicate a diagnosis of PTSD.

Chronic Trauma

PTSD or chronic trauma is when symptoms from trauma remain longer than a month. Again, this includes

· reexperiencing or reliving the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares;

· avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma;

· having negative beliefs about yourself; and

· hyperarousal, such as anxiety or anger.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma, interpersonal trauma, or relational trauma occurs through harm or abandonment by a caregiver or through harm within another interpersonal relationship. Complex trauma can occur in childhood or adulthood.

Judith Herman (2015) suggested that most of the personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) are manifestations of complex trauma. Bessel van der Kolk (2014) has been trying to get a Disorders of Extreme Stress diagnosis recognised in the DSM for complex trauma client presentations. Symptoms of complex trauma include problems with regulation of affect and impulses, memory and attention, self-perception, interpersonal relations, trauma held in the body or somatization, and understanding systems of meaning (Van der Kolk, 2014).

Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma is trauma that occurs during the formative years of childhood and during various developmental stages. Trauma in early childhood impacts brain development and leads to trauma symptoms and psychiatric disorders. Bruce Perry, MD, explained that the timing of exposure to trauma and sensitive developmental periods are key for the brain in the neurosequential model (Perry & Winfrey, 2021).

The adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study conducted from 1995 to 1997 connected childhood abuse and neglect to adverse health and mental health outcomes in later life (Felitti, et al., 1998). The research showed that childhood abuse and neglect

· disrupt neurodevelopment;

· impair social, emotional, and cognitive development;

· and correlate with disease, disability, social problems, and early death.

Extreme Trauma

Extreme trauma or dissociative identity disorder (DID) is marked by the disconnection of body and mind. Dissociation is one of the ways the mind copes with too much stress—it is our hypoarousal or freeze response. We all dissociate to some degree, such as mindlessly scrolling on social media. In PTSD, dissociation is a possible trauma symptom. Two possible types of dissociation are derealization, feeling if things are not real, and depersonalization, feeling like you are not in your body.

if we look at dissociation through a spectrum lens, DID is the extreme end of the dissociation spectrum. Clients with DID report

· memory loss,

· lost time,

· feeling disconnected from their body or thoughts,

· out of body experiences,

· flashbacks,

· hallucinations, and

· self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Help Is Available

If you have gone through stressful life events or experiences and think you may have trauma symptoms, reach out to a trauma-informed counsellor for support. Click here to book a free consultation with a registered trauma counsellor today.


Anderson, F. (2022, June 13–14). Intensive workshop: Treating complex trauma with internal family systems (IFS) [Webinar]. PESI.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258.

Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and recovery. Basic Books.

Perry, B. D., & Winfrey, O. (2021). What happened to you? Flatiron Books.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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