If you’ve ever experienced or witnessed a distressing, scary, or violent event, you may be impacted by trauma. Traumatic events can happen at any time throughout your life, and living with trauma can cause you to feel anxious, depressed, or angry.
Luckily, there is help for trauma survivors, no matter when the traumatic event occurred or how your trauma presents itself in your daily life. We’ve compiled some important facts and resources in this guide to help you better understand trauma and, hopefully, get the help you need.
If you have thoughts of suicide, reach out to a friend or relative. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline by dialing 988 (or 1-800-273-8255) or call 911.
Trauma occurs when someone experiences a disturbing or distressing event or series of events. This experience causes long-term emotional, psychological, and physical effects.¹ People who go through traumatic events have a tough time coping with these effects, leading to issues like mental illness, substance abuse, and chronic health conditions.²
People experience trauma regardless of:
Trauma particularly affects children because adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact brain development.¹ Since the brain is not fully developed until someone is in their mid-twenties,¹⁸ the impact of ACEs can fundamentally affect how children process information, detect danger, and trust safe sources of support. In addition, trauma is not restricted to the individual — entire communities, nations, or groups of people can also experience collective trauma.
If you live through a natural disaster, witness a crime or accident, or become imprisoned, you could experience trauma. Other experiences that may cause trauma include:¹ ²
Many life experiences may cause trauma. In addition, if two people live through the same event, one might experience it as trauma while the other might not. Trauma can be identified not by the event but by its lasting effects. It is traumatic if it causes long-lasting (or sometimes life-long) adverse effects. If you don’t feel those long-term effects, the event did not cause trauma, or it may have caused short-term trauma.
There are many forms of trauma because potentially traumatic events affect people differently. Below you’ll find different types of trauma with definitions and examples.
Acute trauma occurs after a one-time event, like a car accident or job loss. The trauma is specific, and you can identify it. You may have an intense reaction to this event right after it happens, but the distressing effects often don’t last long. You may recover from acute trauma quicker than other forms.³
Unlike acute trauma, chronic trauma arises from experiencing persistent and prolonged traumatic events over a period of time. Chronic trauma may result from events like emotional neglect, physical or sexual abuse, or other types of repeated mental, emotional, and physical violence. Sometimes, chronic trauma is hard to define, as it doesn’t always have a definitive beginning, middle, or end.³
Someone might experience complex trauma if they survived many traumatic events or recurring traumatic events. Often, complex trauma results from events that the survivor could not escape and may have been forced to experience. For example, living with a parent with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues could result in complex trauma. Those living with complex trauma often feel unsafe and are hypervigilant about threats in their surroundings. Like chronic trauma, complex trauma isn’t necessarily linear and can be challenging to define.³
Secondary or vicarious trauma happens when you are exposed to the traumatic events of other people. Even though you are not going through the event, witnessing it may traumatize you. This form of trauma often happens to doctors, first responders, and counselors whose professions call them to intervene during or after traumatic events. This type of trauma can also potentially lead to burnout and compassion fatigue.³
An ACE is any detrimental experience a child might live through before they are old enough to cope with the event. This includes both directly experienced events and witnessed events. ACEs include child sexual abuse, the death of a loved one, emotional neglect, and divorce, among others. ACEs impact the child’s brain development, affecting their mental health into adulthood.³
Naturally caused trauma results from natural disasters or occurrences. These events vary widely, from hurricanes and blizzards to floods or volcanic eruptions. Any natural occurrence that causes distress or panic can result in trauma.⁴
Human-caused trauma arises when people accidentally or intentionally cause a traumatic event. Examples of accidental traumatic events include car accidents, plane crashes, or friendly fire. Intentional traumatic events cover an even wider range and may include any form of abuse or violence, like warfare, homicide, arson, bullying, or harassment.⁴
Historical trauma is not the result of an event or series of events within a person’s lifetime. Instead, it results from generational trauma that can result from traumatic events affecting entire groups, countries, or races of people. Historical trauma, for example, was introduced to describe the trauma experienced by the children of Holocaust survivors. The trauma experienced by the BIPOC community, immigrants, and those living in poverty has been described as historical trauma.⁴
Individual trauma happens only to one person, but it may impact others. Individual trauma includes single, multiple, and prolonged traumatic events. Those who experience individual trauma are less likely to disclose their trauma or receive the help they need than those who experience group trauma.⁵
Group trauma occurs when a small group with a shared identity or history experiences a traumatic event or events. For example, group trauma may occur with first responders or military service members. Those who experience group trauma often only feel comfortable discussing the trauma with others from that group.⁵
Also known as collective trauma, mass trauma occurs when the same event impacts many people. This can include natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and human-caused events like war or terrorism. We experienced a recent type of mass trauma with the COVID-19 pandemic. Mass trauma requires large-scale resources for coping and healing, but those affected also tend to unite because of their shared experience. They may struggle both mentally and financially to return their lives to normal.⁵
Re-traumatization can occur at any point in a survivor’s life. It happens when they encounter circumstances that remind them of the traumatic event, causing stress reactions or flashbacks. Sometimes survivors can be re-traumatized when receiving care for trauma, as they may need to recount events or answer questions from clinicians that trigger memories.⁴
Trauma is a pervasive and complex issue. Research suggests that 50% of people will experience at least one traumatic event.⁶ Around 8% of those survivors will develop PTSD.⁶ More than likely, you and most people you know have or will experience trauma at some point, so it’s important to know who it affects and how often. Read the statistics below to learn more.
If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event, you may notice some signs or symptoms of trauma. Knowing these signs is important so you can seek help and learn to cope. Trauma presents itself differently in everyone, but there are some signs you may notice most often, including:¹⁰ ¹¹ ¹²
In addition to these emotional and psychological responses, trauma survivors may also experience physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, digestive issues, excessive sweating, or a quick heartbeat. Trauma survivors may also be easily startled.¹²
If a child or teenager experiences a traumatic event, their trauma symptoms may present differently than those in adults. Teenagers and older children may show some of the trauma signs above, but they might also act out in disruptive and destructive ways, sometimes seeking revenge for the traumatic event.¹²
In young children, signs of trauma could include:¹²
Experiencing a traumatic event or events can have long-lasting mental and physical effects. The more exposure to traumatic events, the more likely someone is to have chronic health issues or participate in risky behaviors. While children are most at-risk of the long-term impact of trauma, people at any age can experience these long-lasting impacts.¹
A groundbreaking survey called The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study surveyed around 9,500 adults in the U.S. to determine the long-term impacts of ACEs. The survey asked participants questions about traumatic events they experienced before age 18. The results showed that, when compared to adults who did not experience an ACE, adults with four or more ACEs were 2-12 times more likely to:¹³
Trauma survivors were also 1.4-1.6 times more likely to be physically inactive or obese. Many ACEs showed a connection to physical health issues like cancer, lung disease, and liver disease. Those with more than one ACE were more likely to have more than one physical ailment in adulthood.¹³
Experiencing trauma may also have adverse effects on interpersonal relationships. Trauma survivors often have trouble trusting other people, leading to social isolation, feelings of betrayal, and the inability to receive quality medical care.¹
When you experience a traumatic event, your brain reacts. A distressing experience activates your amygdala, the part of your brain that detects threats and sends signals to the rest of your body. This reaction can trigger your fight-or-flight response or cause you to freeze. Your body also releases adrenaline and stress hormones.³
Usually, this reaction diminishes when you’re removed from the traumatic event. But those with PTSD or other long-term trauma effects have hyperactive amygdalas. This hyperactivity causes stress reactions to minor events that are usually unrelated to the traumatic event. We commonly refer to this as someone being in “defense mode,” ready to react to any perceived threat. This condition can lead to problems with sleep, self-perception, and relationships.³
The most common long-term impact of trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most people recover not long after a traumatic event occurs, but some continue to be affected by the event long after it ends. This can lead to emotional, psychological, and physical issues.¹⁴
A mental health professional usually diagnoses PTSD, and 7-8% of people will experience the disorder at least once. Here are some of the signs of PTSD:¹⁴
Treatment for PTSD includes medication, psychotherapy, group therapy, lifestyle changes, and self-care. Learning to manage your symptoms and understand your PTSD can help you process your trauma, identify your emotions, and find peace.¹⁴
Many online resources can help those living with trauma. These resources offer information about seeking further assistance and are a good place to start if you are interested in receiving treatment. Some also provide various tips and steps you can take to begin the healing process on your own.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a comprehensive list of resources for help dealing with trauma. For more resources, check out our list below.
There are many ways to cope after a traumatic event. The steps you take to deal with stress, anger, or fear depend on the event itself and on your own needs and resources. But there are some critical steps you can take to lessen the event’s impact and cultivate effective healing and coping strategies.
Helping children and teens cope with trauma can be different than working through it yourself. Often, children need more reassurance and require their parents or caregivers to validate their feelings and make them feel safe. If a child or teen does not receive this type of care from adults after a traumatic event, it can lead to long-term effects.
Here are some tips about how to help children and teens cope with trauma:¹⁶
Some survivors may wonder if healing after a traumatic event is possible. It may feel like the effects of trauma will never go away and will always follow you. It’s natural to feel like you can’t escape your trauma. But the truth is that there are many steps you can take to heal from trauma.
One way to begin healing is through a mindset shift: viewing yourself as a survivor of trauma instead of a victim. This reframing can help you acknowledge what happened and commit yourself to processing and releasing emotions. It can also help you build resilience and coping skills.¹⁶
Other methods of healing from trauma include:
When seeking help for trauma, you may come across the term “trauma-informed care.” This approach uses accepted psychological principles about trauma to dictate patient support. Practitioners of trauma-informed care don’t attempt to simply treat your symptoms but, instead, gain a complete understanding of your life, including traumatic events, to help you heal.¹⁷
Trauma-informed care practices seek to make patients feel safe and supported while helping them work through traumatic issues. Other core principles of trauma-informed care include:¹⁷
 Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. (2021). What is trauma? Center for Health Care Strategies. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma/.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022). Trauma and violence. SAMHSA. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence.
 Psychology Today. (n.d.). Trauma. Sussex Publishers, LLC. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/trauma#types-of-trauma.
 National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. (2016). Behind the term: Trauma. NREPP. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://calswec.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/4-3_behind_the_term_trauma.pdf.
 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). (2014). Trauma-informed care in behavioral health services, Chapter 2: Trauma Awareness. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207203/.
 American Psychological Association. (2017, August). Facts About Women and Trauma. APA. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/advocacy/interpersonal-violence/women-trauma.
 Recognize Trauma. (n.d.). Trauma statistics. Mental Health Connection of Tarrant County. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://recognizetrauma.org/statistics.php.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, September 27). Understanding child trauma. SAMHSA. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma.
 Finkelhor D., Turner H., Shattuck A., & Hamby S. (2013, July). Violence, Crime, and Abuse Exposure in a National Sample of Children and Youth: An Update. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7):614-621. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1686983.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Helping Patients Cope With A Traumatic Event. CDC. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/masstrauma/factsheets/professionals/coping_professional.pdf.
 Miao, X., Chen, Q., Wei, K., Tao, K., & Lu, Z. (2018, September 28). Posttraumatic stress disorder: from diagnosis to prevention. Military Medical Research, 5, 32. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://mmrjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40779-018-0179-0.
 The National Institute of Mental Health. (2022, May). Coping with traumatic events. NIMH. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events.
 Felitti, V., Anda, R., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D., Spitz, A., Edwards, V., Koss, M., & Marks, J. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/pdf.
 The National Institute of Mental Health. (2022, May). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. NIMH. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, June 8). Coping Tips for Traumatic Events and Disasters. SAMHSA. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/coping-tips.
 Child Mind Institute. (2023, January 25). Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-after-a-traumatic-event/.
 Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. (2021). What is Trauma-Informed Care?. Center for Health Care Strategies. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma-informed-care/.
 Simpson, A. (2018). Young Adult Development Project - Brain Changes. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved February 18, 2023, from https://hr.mit.edu/static/worklife/youngadult/brain.html.