Trauma is a complex condition that can be difficult to understand for those who haven’t experienced it. The wide range of emotional and physical symptoms associated with the different types of trauma tend to complicate it further. Fortunately, there has been more awareness of the symptoms of trauma and how urgently effective treatments are needed.

Researchers estimate around 50% of people will experience at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetime. Around 8% of those people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The signs of trauma are not always easy to recognize, which makes it more difficult for people to get the support they need.

Trauma and Your Brain

Neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change and adapt — is responsible for human survival. But when the parts of your brain responsible for anticipating danger are overused, that neuroplasticity can work against you. Being constantly triggered or feeling as if danger is around every corner can cause neurons related to survival to communicate more frequently with one another.

Abuse and other trauma-triggering events can put the brain in a constant state of “fight or flight.” This causes a chemical reaction that is at the root of symptoms like anxiety or irritability. As these neural pathways become stronger, the brain can potentially become “stuck” in old patterns.

Avoiding trauma creates new problems. Overworking or misusing drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with trauma may be temporary fixes, but eventually, the symptoms return.

Fortunately, neuroplasticity is also the key to healing trauma. Targeted therapies work to reinforce positive signals, which help the brain learn helpful new patterns. Just as negative brain changes happen slowly over time, positive rewiring also takes time. Trauma therapy is a process of small changes repeated over and over again.

The Three Major Types of Trauma

It is common to think of trauma as an event. However, the American Psychological Association defines trauma as the emotional response to a distressing event. This definition helps explain how two people can live through the same experience, but only one of them suffers from the lingering symptoms of trauma.

Many different terms are used to describe trauma. Generational trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and secondary trauma are a few. But terms like these more aptly describe events that triggered trauma — not the emotional response itself. When it comes to how people experience trauma, there are three main categories: acute, chronic, and complex. Categorizing the type of trauma a person is living with is an important step in developing a treatment program.

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma describes the emotional reaction a person might have after experiencing a single traumatic event. Some examples include an auto accident, the loss of a loved one, or surviving a life-threatening situation.

Feeling shock, emotional numbness, or even anger and confusion are common reactions to acute trauma. Other symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Insomnia or other changes in sleep patterns
  • Dissociation
  • Inability to focus
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Feeling suspicious or distrustful

Many individuals who experience acute trauma recover quickly without the help of a mental health professional. However, many others continue to live with symptoms for months or even years and may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma may happen as the result of experiencing similar distressing events repetitively. Domestic violence, military combat, or childhood abuse are examples of events that can lead to chronic trauma. The symptoms of chronic trauma are similar to those of acute trauma but may also include:

  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Loss of hope
  • Intrusive memories or flashbacks
  • Frequent crying
  • Being easily startled
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Recurring traumatic events prevent the individual from stopping and processing their emotions. Instead, they are caught in what feels like an endless cycle of extreme distress.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is the most heavily involved type of trauma. Complex trauma often overlaps with other major life stressors or co-occurring disorders, such as substance use disorder or depression.

For example, imagine a person who experienced chronic trauma from childhood abuse and then developed PTSD that goes untreated. Due to their poor mental health, they end up in unhealthy adult relationships, where they experience more abuse. All these factors combine to create multiple layers of traumatic experiences known as complex trauma.

The symptoms of complex trauma encompass those of acute and chronic trauma and may also include:

  • Feeling detached from reality
  • Dreams or nightmares
  • Intense feelings of distress when exposed to reminders of traumatic experiences
  • Guilt, self-blame
  • Hypervigilance
  • Suicidal ideation

Because complex trauma is layered with other mental health concerns, it is a difficult type of trauma to treat. However, with targeted therapies and support from mental health professionals, people can recover and find relief from their symptoms.

PTSD vs. CPTSD

No conversation about trauma is complete without exploring post-traumatic stress disorder and complex post-traumatic disorder (CPTSD), as both disorders are caused by trauma. CPTSD is a relatively new diagnosis, and many people are still unfamiliar with how it differs from PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop after an individual experiences a single traumatic event, such as an assault or an auto accident. Combat exposure is one of the most well-known causes of PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Distressing memories or flashbacks of the triggering event
  • Irritability, anger, frustration
  • Avoiding people, places, or activities that are reminders of the triggering event
  • Personality changes
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Inability to focus
  • Emotional numbness
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Hopelessness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Suicidal ideation

Like complex trauma, complex post-traumatic disorder is the result of prolonged traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or neglect. Experiencing or witnessing ongoing violence either in the home or in a war zone can also cause CPTSD.

The main difference between PTSD and CPTSD is the length of time the trauma was experienced. CPTSD shares the same symptom list as PTSD, but it can also cause chronic problems with emotional regulation and self-identity.

Treatment Options for Trauma

The types of trauma an individual has experienced impact which types of treatments are most effective. Traditional treatments like exposure therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy are effective and evidence-based.

Cutting-edge treatments such as ketamine-assisted healing and stellate ganglion block are lesser known but can have a major positive impact on trauma healing.

Ketamine-Assisted Healing

Ketamine is often referred to as a “therapy incubator.” It assists the therapeutic process by helping your mental health professional gain a deeper understanding of your psychological needs while also improving the trust bond between you and your therapist.

Ketamine-assisted healing is intended to be used with psychotherapy and should not be considered a stand-alone treatment. In 2019, ketamine was approved by the FDA for treating depression in adults.

Ketamine is an anesthetic and mild hallucinogen that is used in a variety of ways to treat mental illnesses, such as generalized anxiety, PTSD, and other types of trauma. The dosage and use vary depending on individual needs and personal health history. It may be delivered through an IV, a nasal spray, a transdermal patch, or with a pill.

The chemical creates dissociative effects that allow patients with trauma symptoms to fully relax and process their distressing memories without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. When used in a clinical setting under the supervision of a trained medical professional, ketamine treatment is considered safe and effective.

Stellate Ganglion Block

A stellate ganglion block (SGB) is a minimally invasive procedure in which anesthetic is injected next to a bundle of nerves in the neck, known as the stellate ganglion. The stellate ganglion is partially responsible for regulating functions like blood pressure and heart rate.

The procedure is FDA-approved for pain relief and has recently found a place as an off-label treatment for the major symptoms of trauma, including those associated with PTSD.

SGB treats trauma by resetting the sympathetic nervous system’s natural fight-or-flight response, returning it to baseline. The treatment has been shown effective for minimizing intrusive memories, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, and more.

Finding Help

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that less than 48% of U.S. adults in need of mental health treatment actually receive the help they need. The symptoms of acute trauma may resolve on their own with time, but many people need professional support to overcome all types of trauma. Symptoms like depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation only worsen when ignored.

Trauma may be acute, chronic, or complex. The symptoms of each type of trauma are similar, but every person’s trauma response is different, regardless of the triggering event(s). Each individual’s risk factors and personal experiences shape their ability to cope with trauma.

Ignoring trauma can rob you of healthy relationships, quality of life, and good mental and physical health. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of trauma or have been exposed to prolonged traumatic experiences, you’re not alone.

Contact Plus by APN for more information about trauma treatment, including innovative therapies like ketamine-assisted healing and stellate ganglion block. Call 424.644.6486 or complete our confidential online contact form to get started today.

References

  • Novotney, A. (2017, August 17). Women who experience trauma are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. Here’s why. https://www.apa.org/topics/women-girls/women-trauma
  • “Trauma.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/topics/trauma. Accessed 7 Jan. 2024.
  • Sarah Bence, OTR/L. “The Difference between Acute and Chronic Trauma.” Verywell Health, Verywell Health, 17 Dec. 2021, www.verywellhealth.com/acute-trauma-vs-chronic-trauma-5208875.
  • Lebow, Hilary I. “What Is Complex Trauma? Symptoms, Examples, and How to Heal.” Psych Central, Psych Central, 2 July 2021, psychcentral.com/ptsd/complex-trauma-a-step-by-step-description-of-how-it-develops.
  • “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 Dec. 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967.
  • Mental Health by the Numbers – Nami, www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/NAMI_2020MH_ByTheNumbers_Adults-r.pdf. Accessed 7 Jan. 2024.