What Is Trauma and How Do We Treat It?

Frequent climate disasters, social injustice, and a constantly changing pandemic. Over the last two years, the discussion of trauma has become more central. Are experiences like this traumatic? How do these experiences relate to what we already designate as trauma? I have observed how humans have been impacted over the past two years as a trauma therapist. Through a trauma-informed lens, I can say that many people have experienced some level of trauma. 

That said, naming something as “trauma” is complex. It is important for people who have experienced trauma to have the space to name it as such themselves. Forcing a trauma-label on someone who has not decided to call their experience “traumatic” can create unnecessary harm. If you or someone you know is curious about how to define their challenging experiences, here are definitions of various types of trauma.

what is trauma

What is trauma?

Trauma is challenging to define as there are numerous types of trauma. The best overarching definition of trauma that I have seen is provided by the American Psychological Association which states that, 

“Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”

While this describes trauma overall, it misses on the nuance of specific types of trauma. More specific types of trauma include:

  • Acute Trauma: An acute trauma is a trauma that occurs in one single incident. Examples of acute trauma include experiencing a car accident, a natural disaster, or a singular experience of assault. 
  • Chronic Trauma: Chronic trauma occurs when someone endures repeated traumas or is exposed to long-term stress. Domestic violence, lengthy military tours, and childhood bullying are examples of chronic trauma. Chronic trauma is often referred to as complex trauma.
  • Vicarious Trauma: Vicarious trauma is when someone exhibits symptoms of having experienced trauma without having experienced a traumatic event themselves.  Vicarious trauma occurs in those who are supporting people who have experienced trauma or who have witnessed a traumatic event. Common examples of people impacted by vicarious trauma are therapists, social service workers, and first responders. Additionally, witnessing something like a car accident or someone being assaulted can result in vicarious trauma. 
  • Inter-Generational Trauma: This type of trauma occurs when trauma is passed down from generation to generation. It was first witnessed in children of Holocaust Survivors. Though these children did not experience the Holocaust, they exhibited signs of trauma exposure. Discussions of inter-generational trauma underscore the value of destigmatizing trauma treatment and making it accessible. That way, this trauma is not passed down generationally. 
  • Historical Trauma: Historical trauma occurs when a societal group experiences trauma that is hallmarked by malicious intent of another group, widespread impact, and collective suffering of the community. An example of a group that has experienced historical trauma are the Native Americans throughout North America who experienced genocide due to European settlers. This type of trauma is also referred to as collective trauma.

How can trauma be treated?

With proper care and treatment, the impacts of trauma on a person or a community can heal. While there are numerous types of treatments to heal trauma, research reveals that one of the best antidotes for trauma is connection and purpose. Trauma is less likely to have as large of an impact if a person or group feel connection to others and have hope for a meaningful future. We all experience challenges throughout life, but when possible, fostering community and purpose can protect against the longer impacts of trauma. In the event that you find yourself or your community hoping to heal from trauma, below are various types of treatment that may be helpful:

  • Therapy: If you or someone you know is experiencing the impact of trauma, working with a mental health provider may be a valuable step for healing. Below are various types of therapy that are specific for trauma. To learn how to find a therapist, look here.
  • Group Therapy: Many trauma focused groups exist for trauma survivors. Group therapy is valuable because it allows folks with similar life experiences to understand they are not alone in their pain and healing. This type of therapy can be particularly useful for communities that have experienced collective trauma. 

While therapy is often used to integrate trauma, there are other tools that may be useful to manage trauma symptoms or heal a collective or historical trauma. Other non-therapy tools for healing trauma are provided here:

  • Mindfulness: Some symptoms of experiencing trauma include dissociation, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts. Engaging in mindfulness-based techniques like journaling, meditation, and grounding exercises can allow a trauma survivor to regain their space in the present moment. 
  • Restorative Justice: As discussed above, historical and collective trauma often occur because the group holding power causes harm to a more marginalized group. Part of the healing process involves the group that caused harm taking accountability for their or their predecessor’s actions. Then, the group that caused harm offers reparations in a way that is suitable to those who were harmed. While guaranteeing restoration is not always something the harmed group can control, it is an important aspect of trauma healing.

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.

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