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What is trauma?

Various descriptions for trauma exist. However, many researchers describe trauma as being the result of “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”.

Trauma can also be described as an emotional shock from exposure to a stressful event or experience, such as the sudden loss of a loved one, a physical or emotional assault, or being involved in a serious car accident, which may lead to long-term neurosis.

Moreover, trauma and addiction specialist Gabor Maté says that trauma can be just as much about what didn’t happen as what did in terms of childhood attachment and attunement.

For example, a young infant may experience attachment trauma due to a lack of adequate nurturing and care from a parent or caregiver in the early stages of development, leading to various maladaptive behaviours and coping patterns later on.

When an individual experiences trauma, particularly in the long-term, it can have a detrimental impact on their ability to function, which can have lasting effects on their mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.

It’s important to remember that it’s not the circumstances that determine whether an experience is traumatic but a person’s emotional responses to them.

Inherently, we all have different reactions to stressful experiences and different levels of resilience, which will impact how we are affected. What one person deems deeply traumatic or upsetting, another may not. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with trauma symptoms and would like further information and support on available treatments, contact our friendly team in Ontario, who can provide you with additional help and resources.

It’s important to know that you are not alone. 

Various trauma treatments can help you manage your symptoms and process your past experiences so that they no longer have such an intense or overwhelming impact on your life.

Please speak to a trauma specialist today about our trauma-informed treatment program.

What types of events can cause trauma?

Various events can cause a person to experience trauma. 

These events cover a broad spectrum in type and severity and are categorised by some trauma experts as “big T traumas” and “little t traumas”.

Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Big T trauma

Big T trauma refers to traumatic events that threaten a person’s life, cause physical harm, or cause someone to experience extreme fear, horror, or helplessness. 

Researchers note that big T traumas are distinguished as extraordinary and significant events that leave an individual feeling powerless and possessing little control over their environment. (Different Types of Trauma: Small ‘t’ versus Large ‘T,’ Psychology Today, Elyssa Barbash, Ph.D. 13 March 2017.)

Big T traumas include the following events:

  • The sudden loss of a loved one
  • Witnessing violent acts, such as domestic violence or abuse from a family member 
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Childhood trauma, including neglect, abandonment, or abuse
  • Life-threatening illness or medical interventions
  • Severe accidents, such as a car crash or other serious incident
  • Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods
  • Terrorist attack
  • Working in combat or military environments

Little t trauma

Little t trauma refers to traumatic events or experiences that are highly distressing or disruptive without causing a threat to life. 

Researchers state that little t traumas often include events that society has normalised as part of everyday life, such as social rejection, divorce, moving home, and financial difficulty. 

Unlike big T traumas, these events do not present physical danger or harm. However, they can still profoundly impact a person’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. 

Little t traumas must be taken seriously as their effects can fuel unhealthy behaviour patterns later on, including substance abuse and other risky behaviours.

Little t traumas include the following events:

  • Financial or legal concerns
  • Job loss
  • Going through a divorce or separation
  • Sudden move or relocation
  • Being harassed or bullied
  • Ongoing conflict at work or with family members
  • Being threatened or ignored
  • Infidelity
  • Interpersonal conflict

While traumatic events can happen to any of us at any time, a person is more likely to be traumatised by these experiences if they are already under extreme stress, have recently suffered a series of losses, or have been traumatised in the past (primarily if any previous trauma occurred during childhood).

Common trauma reactions

While there are no objective criteria to assess what type of situation will trigger trauma in any individual, there are some common reactions. A person may feel:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Shocked
  • Frightened
  • Threatened 
  • Unsafe
  • Trapped
  • Humiliated
  • Abandoned
  • Invalidated
  • Unsupported and alone
  • Ashamed
  • Angry
  • Powerless

Trauma has no exemption. It can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, location, or sexual orientation.

What are the main symptoms associated with trauma?

Trauma symptoms can range from mild to severe and can be fleeting or persist over several days, weeks, months, or even years.

Trauma symptoms are typically listed under three main categories: 

  • Physical
  • Psychological
  • Behavioural

Physical symptoms

It is now understood that unresolved trauma affects the body as well as the mind.

For example, when an individual is exposed to trauma, their body may produce more cortisol (stress hormone) than usual. If this high level of cortisol persists, it can lead to increased risk of specific health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and other adverse health effects, including:

  • A weakened or compromised immune system – making people more prone to colds and other illnesses
  • Disturbed sleep patterns and ongoing problems with fatigue
  • Issues with digestion, including diarrhoea, nausea, or constipation  
  • Muscle tension, causing bodily aches and pains, headaches, and soreness
  • Sweating 
  • Heart palpitations

In addition to the above, recent studies have shown a strong link between unresolved trauma and specific chronic illnesses, including cancer, COPD, and high blood pressure. 

Psychological symptoms

The psychological symptoms of trauma can vary greatly and depend on the individual, type of trauma, and other factors.

However, typically, the psychological symptoms can include:

  • Anger, irritability, and severe mood changes
  • Dissociation – for instance, an individual may feel disconnected from their body, surroundings, and other people
  • Shock, disbelief, or denial
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness, horror, or deep sadness
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Flashbacks – for example, a person may relive aspects of the traumatic event or the feelings associated with it as if the event were happening again
  • The urge to self-medicate to manage or relieve trauma symptoms

Behavioural symptoms

Trauma can affect how a person values and perceives themselves, impacting their behaviour and decisions, and causing difficulties with daily functioning.

This can lead to the following complications or behavioural symptoms:

  • A lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed, such as sports or hobbies
  • Disruptions in sleep patterns, appetite, and libido
  • Angry outbursts or explosive reactions to events or scenarios that seem over the top or excessive to the situation at hand 
  • Ongoing relationship issues due to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or mistrust toward others
  • Startled responses to sudden noises, images, or unexpected touch 
  • Social isolation or withdrawal, preferring to spend time alone than with others
  • Decreased interest in self-care
  • Self-harming behaviours
  • Increased misuse of substances such as drugs or alcohol to cope with difficult symptoms

There are no absolutes to trauma and the various unpleasant symptoms that can emerge from having lived through traumatic experiences. 

We know that recovery can take time and often requires a lot of patience and perseverance.

If you recognise the symptoms of trauma in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to seek help from a trauma specialist or mental health professional who can advise you on the next steps.

If left untreated, trauma can lead to additional mental health issues such as PTSD, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety disorders.

There is no quick fix or “one size fits all” approach to treating trauma; however, it is a very treatable condition.

What are the different types of trauma?

Most people will experience a traumatic event at some point.

Depending on the type of trauma, some people may develop symptoms that naturally resolve themselves without therapeutic intervention within a few weeks. 

In contrast, others may experience long-term symptoms that require professional support.

Understanding the different types of trauma and their effects can be extremely helpful, particularly if you have experienced trauma in the past and are worried about your symptoms.

There are several types of trauma, each with its own set of symptoms and behaviours, including:

Acute trauma 

This occurs when an individual experiences a single, overwhelming event that is dangerous, stressful, or disturbing, such as a natural disaster, car accident, abuse, witnessing violence, or being the victim of violence. 

Moreover, acute trauma is often associated with longer-term mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and acute stress disorder.

Chronic trauma 

This occurs when an individual experiences repeated, prolonged trauma or multiple traumatic events that persist over a long period. 

Examples of chronic trauma include bullying, domestic violence, community violence, childhood abuse (including neglect, starvation, or deprivation), exposure to war or combat environments, and homelessness.

Complex trauma 

This occurs when a person is exposed to varied, multiple traumatic events or experiences that are persistent and recurring and have a cumulative impact on an individual’s life. 

Complex trauma often happens within specific contexts, such as interpersonal relationships. This type of trauma shares similar symptoms to PTSD, including anxiety, flashbacks, and avoidance behaviours. 

In addition, complex trauma can distort a person’s self-image or sense of self, cause ongoing relationship problems, and make it difficult for them to control their emotions. 

Developmental trauma 

This is a term used to describe the effects of early, repeated trauma that occurs within a child’s significant relationships, usually in early life. (Developmental Trauma Close Up, Beacon House.) 

Examples include a baby or child who has been neglected or a child who was removed at birth and goes on to experience multiple adverse events such as the death of a caregiver, physical illness, and bullying. 

When a child’s stress responses are continually activated over a prolonged period, the brain’s natural developmental sequences can be disrupted. This often leads to emotional, physical, psychological, and cognitive impairment.

Secondary trauma 

This is also known as “vicarious trauma” and is defined as “the emotional impact of being exposed to other people’s trauma”. For instance, individuals may experience trauma symptoms when hearing about another person’s pain or suffering or witnessing the fear and terror experienced by trauma survivors. 

Mental health professionals, family members, and others who work with trauma survivors are most at risk of developing secondary trauma. 

Collective trauma 

Collective trauma can occur when traumatic experiences impact a whole system rather than a single person, such as an entire community or country. 

Examples of collective trauma include natural disasters, severe acts of crime, systematic and historical oppression (such as injustice and discrimination), terrorism, global pandemics, recession and severe poverty, genocide and religious persecution, and forced displacement.

What are the risk factors associated with trauma?

Although anyone can experience trauma, studies show that some people are more susceptible to its effects than others. 

For instance, researchers have identified several risk factors that may increase a person’s vulnerability to trauma, including:

  • The presence of other mental health conditions called co-occurring disorders
  • Additional stress that occurs at the same time as a traumatic event or experience
  • Specific personality traits and characteristics
  • Genetic factors
  • The type of traumatic event experienced
  • Experiencing trauma in childhood
  • Whether or not a person has a robust support system

The different types of trauma disorder

There are several different types of trauma disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), lists the following conditions under the category “trauma- and stressor-related disorders”:

Early treatment for a trauma disorder can help you manage your symptoms and cope with daily life better. 

If you think you may be suffering from any of the above trauma disorders, contact a healthcare professional who can help you get the proper treatment and support you need and deserve.

What treatments are available for trauma?

Trauma is often described as an emotional injury or wound. Therefore, much like a physical wound or injury, we cannot expect to recover from it overnight.

However, specific trauma treatments can help you manage your symptoms and reprocess any painful memories and emotions so that they are no longer as intense or have such an overwhelming impact on you and your life.

Such treatments include trauma-informed therapy and trauma-focused programs, which allow you to integrate and adapt to your past experiences and build resilience over time.

Some of the most effective trauma-focused therapies include the following:

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) helps individuals to reprocess their traumatic experiences by becoming more aware of their beliefs and thoughts related to specific traumatic events. This treatment allows individuals to develop more helpful beliefs and thought patterns and adopt healthier coping mechanisms. CBT is also beneficial for treating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) adopts a body-oriented approach to trauma treatment. EMDR uses elements of CBT combined with bilateral eye movements (or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation) guided by an experienced therapist. This treatment helps to desensitise, reprocess and integrate traumatic memories and events that were not able to be fully processed at the time the event took place, allowing individuals to reprocess them safely so that they no longer cause the same level of upset or distress.

Somatic therapy

Somatic therapy is a treatment that aims to treat PTSD and other emotional issues through the mind-body connection. It is a body-centric approach to trauma treatment that helps to release tension, stress, and trauma from the body. 

Somatic therapy is based on the understanding that traumatic events can be stored in the body and experienced as physical movements, feelings, and sensations. It considers the narrative a person may create about their traumatic experiences and the physical impact this can have on their health and nervous system. 

Somatic techniques, such as mindfulness, yoga, and massage, can help the mind and body process and integrate trauma, thus releasing any stored tension from the body, reducing unpleasant symptoms, and improving an individual’s quality of life.

Research shows that an integrated approach to trauma recovery can be the most effective and involves utilising various trauma-informed techniques such as the therapies mentioned above.


Medication should not be used to treat trauma or PTSD in isolation. However, specific medications can help reduce some of the unpleasant symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. 

Once a person’s symptoms are under control, it can become much easier for them to engage effectively in other trauma treatments.

Working through trauma can be painful, distressing, and potentially re-traumatising, which is why these treatments must be facilitated and delivered by an experienced trauma specialist.

Trauma-informed treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

Our professional, multi-disciplinary team and compassionate staff are here to support you in restoring balance to your mind, body, and soul.

We offer a holistic trauma-informed treatment program for various trauma disorders shaped around each person’s individual preferences and therapeutic needs. 

As part of an integrated treatment program, we also address and treat any co-occurring conditions that an individual may be experiencing.

Our approach of combining psychiatric evaluation, intensive therapy, medical management, healthy eating, exercise options, and complementary therapies helps foster deep transformational healing and long-term recovery.

We also provide a wide range of complementary approaches designed to support the treatment of trauma, including grief and loss group therapy, coping skills therapy, artwork therapy, and relationship therapy.

Contact one of our specialists today and start your journey of recovery and transformation.

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