What is Trauma? Understanding the Symptoms and Types of Trauma

Trauma is a mental health issue that is triggered by a traumatic event. It can occur as a result of either witnessing or experiencing such events and includes symptoms such as severe anxiety, nightmares, uncontrollable thoughts and flashbacks. Many individuals who go through terrifying events may have a hard time coping or adjusting for some time, but do not develop PTSD since self-care and time can help them to recover. However, symptoms that worsen or last up for several months or years, and hinder regular functioning are usually signs of trauma and PTSD.

What are the Symptoms of Trauma?

These symptoms, or reactions, ranging from mild to severe. They can also be short-lived or persist over several days, significantly interfering with everyday life. Possible symptoms of trauma fall into three general categories, and include the following:

Physical Symptoms:

  • The excessive startle reflex, in response to noises or imagery
  • Fatigue issues, potentially stemming from insomnia or nightmares
  • Accelerated heartbeat, coupled with anxiety or difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle soreness, including aches, pains, or general tension
  • Disrupted body functions, including changes in eating, sleeping, or sexual activity

Behavioural Symptoms:

  • Erratic or hostile responses, such as when rage occurs as a response to seemingly mild criticism or a door slamming
  • Social withdrawal, including isolation or avoidance of activities that were previously enjoyable
  • Substance abuse, or other impulsive behaviours that cause self-harm
  • Argumentative tendencies, often in response to perceived threats during interpersonal interactions

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Chronic low-level anxiety, leading to a feeling of loss of control
  • Fear or depression, as sources of happiness, recede out of reach
  • Re-living the traumatic event, through dreams, flashbacks or sudden thoughts
  • Panic attacks, shock, numbing, or emotional detachment in response to the unresolved traumatic event

Many people with these symptoms will self-medicate with substances like alcohol or drugs, in an effort to control their malfunctioning nervous systems.

It has been firmly established that memory plays an important role in the development and reoccurrence of trauma symptoms. Indeed, we have to frame these symptoms inside the memory paradigm in order to understand the nature of trauma.

For nearly 130 years, it has been documented that trauma and PTSD imprints are stored as physical movements and feelings in our bodies, instead of narratives about unfavourable events in our past, which means that we experience them as immediate threats in the present time.

What are the Different Types of Trauma?

Big Trauma (Shock Trauma)

Big T Trauma is caused by a severely traumatic event that may or may not implicate physical trauma. The event could be experienced by the person who is suffering from the trauma or witnessed by another person. These kinds of events might involve acts of extreme sexual and/or physical violence. They also might be experienced in the community where the person is living, through political acts or war, or inside their home as acts of family or domestic violence.

Other Examples of Big T Trauma Include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Transportation accidents
  • Abrupt, unforeseen death within close relationships
  • Shock trauma is generally the experience of significant unanticipated or unwanted loss.

Small Trauma

Small T trauma is best described as rather common life events that a person experiences as distressing. These events do not appear to be significant at surface level and any particular event may have no significance. However, the emotional impact that the experience has on the person is significant and causes it to become traumatic. What may exacerbate the trauma is other people’s dismissal regarding the weight of the emotional impact.

Oftentimes Small T trauma also falls in the complex trauma category, which we will discuss in greater detail below. A common phrase that can be used to describe Small T trauma is objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Viewing these events in an objective manner does not provide an accurate depiction of the impact that is subjective to the person.

Examples of Small T Trauma Include:

  • Losing a job
  • Being teased or bullied in school
  • The loss of a pet
  • Parent’s divorce
  • Losing friends
  • Poverty
  • Changing schools or home