A Blog Series on All Things Trauma – Part 2
Acute, Chronic, and Complex Trauma
*Trigger warning discussion about trauma and types of trauma
Last week, we started a broad discussion about trauma including various traumatic experiences and symptoms that can develop. This week, we cover the types of traumas with a focus on complex trauma and how it develops.
Most of us have experienced a distressing event in our lives. There may be memories you wish to forget but still tug at your heartstrings (like a bad breakup) or cause you to lay awake anxious thinking about. For many people, they can identify a single event or experience that caused significant distress such as a car accident or falling in the crowded cafeteria in middle school. Single incidents such as these are called acute traumas.
Acute traumas are significant events that overwhelm our ability to cope in the moment and cause that “fight, flight, or freeze response”. However, once that event has subsided, our body is usually able to return to a “normal state”. You might still feel some carry over effects such as nervousness or embarrassment, but overall you are able to carry on and regain functioning.
Chronic and complex trauma have a more lasting impact on the individual. While acute trauma is a single incident, chronic trauma occurs over a prolonged period of time. Prolonged childhood abuse, domestic violence, prolonged exposure to war/combat, community violence, and chronic illnesses are some examples of chronic trauma.
Complex trauma is similar to chronic trauma as it occurs over a prolonged period of time and also includes exposure to multiple traumatic events. It is often severe and interpersonal in nature. In addition to the examples mentioned, complex trauma may also include human trafficking, sexual abuse or incest, childhood neglect or abandonment, and torture.
Unlike with acute trauma, chronic and complex trauma disrupts the person’s ability to “return to normal”. This makes sense considering the prolonged exposure, the body isn’t able to return to a normal state and often stays in heightened state of arousal. This arousal is a protective function, it is our body’s way of keeping us safe and prepared to handle danger. While this is a built-in survival mechanism, over time, this heightened state becomes a new normal keeping the person hyper focused or alert, constantly scanning the environment for danger. It can also negatively affect a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and relationships.
Other effects of complex trauma may show up as difficulty with or lapses in memory, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, or nightmares, dissociation, derealization or depersonalization, difficulty regulating emotions, hypervigilance, low self-esteem, avoiding people, places, and things that remind the person of a traumatic event, difficulty with relationships, body aches, lowered immune system, and chronic health conditions. There is also a strong link between complex trauma and substance use as a way of coping.
While trauma and its symptoms can be difficult and overwhelming, the good news is that it can be treated. If you have experienced trauma or recognize some of the symptoms, you are not alone. Reach out for a free 20 minute consultation to see if we would be a good fit working together*
*if you or a loved one are having a medical emergency or are in immediate danger- call 911. If it is important to let the 911 operator know if it is a mental health emergency and ask for police officers trained in crisis intervention or trained to assist people experiencing a psychiatric emergency.
Resources are available, free, and 24/7 to support you:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor, text-based support, free, 24/7
SAMHSA’s National Hotline: 800-662-4357. Free, confidental, 24/7 information service for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.
Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860 for US and 877-330-6366 for Canada. Trans Lifeline’s Hotline is a peer support service run by trans people, for trans and questioning callers.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: For any victims and survivors who need support, call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto https://buff.ly/2HdC5J1 or text LOVEIS to 22522.
StrongHearts Native Helpline: Call 1-844-762-8483. The StrongHearts Native Helpline is a confidential and anonymous culturally-appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT.
The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.