Is all trauma the same?

Everyone experiences trauma differently—even people who have gone through the same thing! But there are certain “categories” of trauma that can help you understand your own experiences, and how to heal from them.

Was my trauma really "bad enough" to affect me?

No one type of trauma is “worse” than another. You can even experience the same type of trauma—or even the same event—as someone else and have different reactions to it. If something hurts you, it hurts, and your natural emotional reaction is valid.

It can be helpful to think about “big ‘T’ trauma” and “little ‘t’ trauma.” Big ‘T’ trauma is what most people think of when it comes to traumatic events—things like physical or sexual abuse, terrorism, and catastrophic accidents.

Little ‘t’ trauma refers to events that might not be so obvious, but can still overwhelm our capacity to cope—things like your parents arguing a lot at home, or abruptly moving to a new town. Little ‘t’ traumas may sound less serious than big ‘T’ traumas, but they can build up and cause just as much distress as one big event.

Types of trauma

Trauma can show up in some unexpected ways. Here are some terms that can be helpful in making sense of what you’ve been through:

Acute trauma is a single overwhelming incident, like having a pet die or being the victim of a crime.

Chronic trauma (or complex trauma) is when something highly stressful happens over and over again, or lasts a long time. Often when people talk about complex trauma, it refers to going through abuse or severe neglect as a child [1]. It can also refer to other domestic violence or stress within your broader community. It occurs from repeated distressing experiences at the hands of someone you trust. 

Insidious trauma happens to a group of people you are a part of—for example: racism, sexism, or homophobia [2]. Even if you haven’t noticed any incidents where you were specifically targeted, being a part of a marginalized community has a big impact on your mental health. “Insidious” means that this kind of trauma is usually subtle—you may not even realize it’s affected you!

Vicarious trauma (also called secondary trauma) results from seeing someone else’s trauma second-hand. It’s frequently experienced by helping professionals like social workers, therapists, and emergency room doctors. It can also happen if something traumatic has happened to someone close to you, like a friend or family member.

Mass trauma refers to an event or experience that impacts a larger community or society. This includes large-scale natural disasters, like hurricanes, as well as human-caused disasters (like war and terrorist attacks). These events usually involve property loss/damage, death, and general life disruption for almost everyone in the community.

Intergenerational trauma refers to when the effects of a trauma are passed down in a family [3]. For example, a grandmother who grew up in an abusive home may have learned to not show her emotions; even if the cycle of abuse is broken, her emotional distance can impact her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on.

Trauma can even alter a person’s DNA structure and gene expression, which can then be passed down to their biological children [4]. This can continue on for generations and generations.

Historical trauma refers to a mass trauma that is experienced over a long period of time (many years) by a specific cultural, racial, or ethnic group. This trauma usually spans multiple generations and includes things like genocide, slavery, colonialism, and war.

Like other forms of intergenerational trauma, historical trauma can be carried through a family’s DNA. It can also shape entire cultures [5].


Any type of trauma can have long-lasting effects on your mental health. It can cause conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. These conditions are treatable, and you’re not alone! If you’ve been through something traumatic, it’s a good idea to take a mental health test and learn more about the ways your trauma may be affecting you.

References

  1. Cook et al. (2005). Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals 35(5), pp. 390-398. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20050501-05
  2. Dunn. (2005). Feminist Perspectives on Trauma. Women & Therapy 28(3-4). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254379205_Feminist_Perspectives_on_Trauma
  3. Hill. (2018). Inter-generational Trauma: 6 Ways It Affects Families. Psych Central Blog. Retrieved from https://oie.duke.edu/inter-generational-trauma-6-ways-it-affects-families
  4. Henriques, M. (2019, March 26). Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations? BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190326-what-is-epigenetics 
  5. Clemmons, J. (2020, August 26). Black families have inherited trauma, but we can change that. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/epigenetics-and-the-black-experience

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