When you experience a traumatic event it can change your beliefs about yourself, other people, the world in general, and your future. Trauma creates fragmented memories that are often sensory in nature. This means that we oftentimes don’t remember every detail of a traumatic event, but bits and pieces of the trauma become stored throughout our body in the form of mental images, smells, tastes, sounds, or touch. Following a trauma you may notice feeling triggered by something in the environment that causes you to recall parts of the event. Triggers may include loud noises, the smell of certain food cooking, or seeing a vehicle that resembles one involved in an accident. The result of having fragmented memories and changes in your beliefs might be that you notice feeling angry, fearful, distrustful, shameful, anxious, and other negative emotions.
You may experience traumatic events at any point in your development including childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. This post describes ten types of traumas that may affect you or someone close to you over the course of your lifetime. Most people do not experience long term impairment following a traumatic event and it is possible to experience healthy growth following a traumatic incident and build resilience.
Natural traumatic experiences can affect a small number of people in a neighborhood or a larger number of people within a community. The following are some examples of natural-causes of trauma.
- Lightning strike
- Volcanic eruptions
How you respond to natural-caused trauma depends on how much devastation has occurred, the extent of loss, the amount of time it takes you to get back to daily activities, and the accessibility of services in your area. Having relief services available following a natural-caused traumatic event can greatly reduce the traumatic stress and aid in the recovery process.
Human-caused trauma are those caused by human behavior. These types of trauma can be accidental or intentional. Here are some examples of human-caused traumatic events.
- Structural collapses
- Plane crashes
- Gas explosions
- Oil spills
- Gun shootings
- Sexual assault/abuse
- Domestic violence
- Human trafficking
- Home invasion
There is a difference in the way people perceive natural versus human-caused events. Natural events are often perceived as unavoidable whereas human-caused events are considered to be either intentional or unintentional. Following any type of traumatic event, people often feel a sense of anger, loss, frustration, fear, and sadness. When a trauma is perceived as intentionally harmful and human-caused, the event is often experienced as more traumatic and people attempt to make sense of the perpetrator’s personal characteristics and motivations for performing the act.
An individual trauma is one in which the traumatic event is experienced by one person. This type of event can be a one-time occurrence such as a physical attack or it could occur multiple times such as with repeated assaults. If you’ve experienced an individual trauma, you may feel that you don’t have the support in your community that is provided when larger, group traumas happen. It can be difficult for many individual survivors to disclose what has happened to them and you may feel isolated, shameful, or secretive about what happened to you if there is no validation or comfort available to you.
Group trauma refers to types of traumatic experiences that affect specific, small groups of people. This type of trauma affects groups such as first responders, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, commercial fishing crews, and military service members. Group trauma survivors are more likely to experience repeated trauma and tend to only discuss the trauma experiences with other members of their group.
Group survivors have great influence over other group members. They may encourage others to repress their traumatic experiences or discourage other members from seeking help if there is a sense of fear that the group may be shamed. Members may also discourage help-seeking if they believe that acknowledging the trauma will mean having to manage the repressed feelings that could surface. In other instances, groups can create a strong, supportive environment that can help members handle multiple traumas, aid in making adjustments over time, manage traumatic stress symptoms, and address mental and substance use disorders.
Historical, or generational, traumas are those that directly affect specific cultures and may indirectly affect the generations that follow. Examples of historical trauma include enslavement of African Americans, the forced assimilation of American Indians, the extermination of Jews during World War II, and genocide in Rwanda.
Historical trauma can lead to a loss of cultural knowledge, language,and identity. Additionally, it is associated with a reduced sense of well-being, depression, grief, traumatic stress, domestic violence, and substance abuse.
Mass traumas affect a large number of people and can be natural or human-caused events. This type of traumatic event may result in significant loss for individuals and communities. Examples of mass trauma include tsunamis, nuclear reactor meltdowns, earthquakes, and mass shootings. This form of trauma often challenges the available resources of the affected communities and makes it difficult to respond in a timely way. Mass traumas often result in chain reactions in which one trauma can lead to another. Following the initial destruction of a mass traumatic event, such as a hurricane, people may have difficulty meeting basic needs of receiving food, water, shelter, and safety as they are displaced from homes. In mass traumas it may seem as though you are no sooner trying to adapt to one trauma when another traumatic event occurs.
Mass traumas can create a sense of community and decrease the sense of isolation that occurs with individual trauma. People often feel more confident asking for help because others around them are getting help too.
Interpersonal traumas are those that occur between people. Interpersonal trauma commonly happens between people who know each other such as partners or families and includes physical abuse, sexual abuse and assault, domestic violence, elder abuse, and teen dating violence.
Political Terror and War
Terrorism is a human-caused type of trauma with a goal of creating uncertainty and fear within communities. Terrorism leads to fear around the unpredictable nature of terrorist acts, increased security, and intensified suspicion about groups of people or cultures. War threatens the health, well-being, and livelihoods of communities.
Refugees are people fleeing their homelands because they have experienced fear and persecution there. They may be differentiated from immigrants who choose to leave their homes in search of new prospects for themselves or their families. Refugees may have been exposed to torture; witnessed deaths due to execution, starvation, or beatings; and experienced imprisonment, fear, loss of property, separation and/or loss of family members. Following their migration out of their homelands, refugees may also experience difficulty assimilating and adjusting to their new environments in their host country, feel socially isolated, and experience traumatic stress. Communities that are receptive and provide social support with culturally responsive services may help alleviate the development of mental illness and substance use disorders among refugees.
System-Oriented Trauma and Re-traumatization
System-oriented trauma and re-traumatization occurs when treatment settings, service providers, or agencies recreate a traumatic experience for individuals, sometimes without realizing they are doing it. System-oriented traumatization might occur if staff is unaware of a client’s traumatic history, an agency fails to screen for trauma history prior to treatment, providers discount or minimize reports of abuse, or if agencies impose strict policies and rules without allowing clients to respond or question them.
Providers who plan for the risk of re-traumatization by creating trauma-informed policies and procedures and responding sensitively to traumatized clients and their histories can achieve more positive outcomes with the people they serve.
There are a number of qualities that can encourage resilience, the ability to adapt to adversity, among trauma survivors including having strong family bonds, having a spiritual or religious practice, valuing friendships, utilizing humor and creativity, helping others, creating routine, and maintaining certain belief systems. Learning and building resilience can help you in your journey toward overcoming trauma.
If you have experienced trauma, how have you adapted in healthy ways? How were you able to build your resilience? What helped you recover along the way? If you’re a provider, how do you provide trauma informed services that are sensitive to the needs of survivors to prevent re-traumatization?
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Trauma-informed care in behavioral health services. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 57. Chapter 2. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.