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 at 1-800-273-8255 or 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 experience 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
- Nation of origin
- Socioeconomic status
Children are particularly affected by trauma because adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact brain development.¹ 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:
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
- Physical or sexual assault and rape
- Sudden occurrences, like a car accident
- Physical and emotional childhood neglect
- Death of a friend or family member
- Serious illness or injury
- Job loss or poverty
- Racism, discrimination, and oppression
- Violence, war, or terrorism
- Parental abandonment or divorce¹ ²
Many life experiences may cause trauma. In addition, if two people live through the same event, one might experience trauma while the other might not. Trauma can be identified not by the event itself but by the 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. You may have an intense reaction to this event right after it happens, but the distressing effects 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.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.³
Secondary or vicarious trauma
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, you may become traumatized by witnessing it. This often happens to doctors, first responders, and counselors whose professions call them to intervene during or after traumatic events.³
Adverse childhood experiences (ACE)
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
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. Accidental traumatic events are things like 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 that affect entire groups, countries, or races of people. Historical trauma, for example, was introduced to describe the trauma experienced by the children of Holocaust survivors. It’s also been used to describe the trauma experienced by the BIPOC community, immigrants, and those living in poverty.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 that shares a common identity or history experiences a traumatic event or events. Group trauma may occur with first responders or military service members, for example. Those who experience group trauma often only feel comfortable discussing the trauma with others from that group.⁵
Mass trauma occurs when the same event impacts many people. This can include natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes, as well as human-caused events like war or terrorism. 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 happens when trauma survivors 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.
- Women are two times more likely to develop PTSD than men.⁷
- 60% of adults report experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).⁷
- In the U.S., 26% of children experience a traumatic event before the age of 4.⁷ Two-thirds of children will experience a traumatic event before they turn 16.⁸
- In the U.S. in 2019, 1,840 children died of abuse and neglect.⁸ Every day, more than 1,300 children are treated in emergency rooms for violence-related injuries.⁸
- In a survey of 4,500 children, 2% experienced sexual abuse within the past year; close to 14% experienced maltreatment by a caregiver; and 4% experienced physical abuse.⁹
- Around 13% of children surveyed reported physical bullying. One-third reported emotional bullying.⁹ One-fifth of high school students reported being bullied at school in 2019.⁸
- One-fifth of children surveyed witnessed violence at home or in their neighborhood within the previous year.⁹
If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event, you may notice some signs or symptoms of trauma. It’s important to know these signs 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:
- Having flashbacks
- Feeling on-guard or hyperaware
- Feeling worried, scared, resentful, or unsafe
- Losing interest in daily activities
- Being irritable or quick to anger
- Excessive worrying or crying
- Having interrupted sleep, sometimes with nightmares
- Avoiding reminders of the event
- Isolating from loved ones
- Using unhealthy substances to cope¹⁰ 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
Children and teens
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 may also act out in disruptive and destructive ways, sometimes seeking revenge for the traumatic event.¹²
In young children, signs of trauma could include:
- The inability to speak
- Clinginess with parents or caregivers
- Recreations of the event through play¹²
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:
- Abuse alcohol or drugs
- Experience depression
- Attempt suicide
- Rate their overall health as poor
- Have more than 50 total sexual partners
- Contract an STI¹³
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 be living with 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
Trauma and the brain
When you experience a traumatic event, it causes your brain to react. A distressing experience activates your amygdala, which is the part of your brain that detects threats and sends signals to the rest of your body to respond. This can trigger your “fight-or-flight” response or cause you to freeze. Your body also releases adrenaline and stress hormones.³
Usually, this reaction abates when you’re removed from the traumatic event. But those who live with PTSD or other long-term trauma effects have hyperactive amygdalas. This 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 people continue to be affected by the event long after it ends. This can lead to emotional, psychological, and physical issues.¹⁴
Between 7-8% of people will experience PTSD at least once. It’s usually diagnosed by a mental health professional. Here are some of the signs of PTSD:
- Re-experiencing the trauma: Flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts
- Avoidance: Avoiding triggers that remind you of the event, including people, places, and objects
- Hyperarousal or reactivity: Sleep issues, feeling tense or angry
- Cognition and mood issues: Memory problems, feeling guilty or hopeless, losing interest in activities¹⁴
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.
- Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event
- Coping with a Traumatic Event
- Dealing With Trauma
- How to Cope with Traumatic Events
- How to Cope with Traumatic Stress
- The National Center for PTSD
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Psychological First Aid (PFA)
- PTSD Coach
- Resource Guide for Male Survivors of Abuse, Sexual Assault, and Trauma
- Resources for Victims of Child Sexual Abuse and Their Families
- Tips for Survivors: Coping with Anger After a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event
- Traumatic Stress: New Roads to Recovery
For families and caregivers
- Bullying Prevention Resources
- Caring for Children in a Disaster
- Helping Children and Adolescents Cope With Traumatic Events
- Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event
- Helping Traumatized Children: A Brief Overview for Caregivers
- In Loving Arms: The Protective Role of Grandparents and Other Relatives in Raising Children Exposed to Trauma
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma
- Responding to Children Impacted by Trauma
- Resources on Trauma for Families and Caregivers
- Traumatic Events and Children
- Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators
- National Association of School Psychologists
- Supporting Students Experiencing Childhood Trauma
- Trauma Facts for Educators
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- Crisis Text Line (Spanish): Text HOLA to 741741 or 442-AYUDAME
- Disaster Distress Hotline: 1-800-985-5990
- The LGBT National Hotline: 888-843-4564
- Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio: 888-628-9454
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI
- National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: 1-510-465-1984
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255
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.
- If it was a collective traumatic event — like a mass shooting or natural disaster — limit the amount of news you consume afterward. Staying glued to the news can cause you to relive the event, leading to heightened stress and anxiety.¹⁵
- Use relaxation techniques and get enough sleep. Deep breathing and meditation can help you calm your body and mind. Establish a clear bedtime routine and avoid alcohol and caffeine to help you sleep better.¹⁵
- Make healthy lifestyle changes. This includes eating regular meals, incorporating fun activities into your day, and regularly exercising.¹⁵
- Ask your loved ones for help. Share how you’re feeling with those you trust and allow them to help you if they can.
- Don’t ignore or suppress your feelings. Trying not to feel scared or hurt after a traumatic event may be tempting, but processing your emotions through journaling, therapy, or other means can help you accept them and move forward.
Helping children cope
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:
- Don’t reveal your own worries or anxieties to the child.
- Give extra affection, including hugs or a pat on the back.
- Establish and maintain routines, especially meals and bedtimes.
- Encourage children to play with other children or participate in activities they enjoy.
- Talk openly about the event and allow the child to ask questions. Actively listen without interrupting or lecturing.
- Validate, acknowledge, and accept your child’s emotions, and let them know that everyone reacts differently to trauma.
- Encourage relaxation through breathing exercises.
- Limit the amount of news coverage your child consumes.¹⁶
Some survivors may wonder if it is possible to heal after a traumatic event. 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:
- Psychotherapy: Including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Medications: Including antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine
- Lifestyle changes: Healthy eating, movement, and sleep as well as avoiding substances³
- Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: Using MDMA under a therapist’s care to speed up the processing of trauma³
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:
- Peer support
 What is trauma? (2021). Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma/.
 Trauma and violence. (2022). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence.
 Trauma. (2022). Psychology Today. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/trauma#types-of-trauma.
 Behind the term: Trauma. (2016). National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://calswec.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/4-3_behind_the_term_trauma.pdf.
 Trauma-informed care in behavioral health services. (2014). Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207203/.
 Facts about women and trauma. (2017). American Psychological Association. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/advocacy/interpersonal-violence/women-trauma.
 Trauma statistics. (2012). Recognize Trauma. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://recognizetrauma.org/statistics.php.
 Understanding child trauma. (2022). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma.
 Finkelhor D., Turner H., Shattuck A., & Hamby S. (2013). Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(7):614–621. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/1686983.
 Helping patients cope with a traumatic event. Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/masstrauma/factsheets/professionals/coping_professional.pdf.
 Miao, XR., Chen, QB., Wei, K., et al. (2018). Posttraumatic stress disorder: From diagnosis to prevention. Military Med Res. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://mmrjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40779-018-0179-0.
 Coping with traumatic events. (2020). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events.
 Felitti, V., et al. (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. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/pdf.
 Post-traumatic stress disorder. (2019). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.
 Coping tips for traumatic events and disasters. (2022). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/coping-tips.
 Helping children cope after a traumatic event. (2022). Child Mind Institute. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-after-a-traumatic-event/.
 What is trauma-informed care? (2021). Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma-informed-care/.