What Is Trauma
Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience. Few people can go through life without encountering some kind of trauma. Unlike ordinary hardships, traumatic events tend to be sudden and unpredictable, involve a serious threat to life—like bodily injury or death—and feel beyond a person’s control. Most important, events are traumatic to the degree that they undermine a person's sense of safety in the world and create a sense that catastrophe could strike at any time. Parental loss in childhood, auto accidents, physical violence, sexual assault, military combat experiences, the unexpected loss of a loved one are commonly traumatic events.
Acute trauma reflects intense distress in the immediate aftermath of a one-time event and the reaction is of short duration. Common examples include a car crash, physical or sexual assault, or the sudden death of a loved one.
Chronic trauma can arise from harmful events that are repeated or prolonged. It can develop in response to persistent bullying, neglect, abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), and domestic violence.
Complex trauma can arise from experiencing repeated or multiple traumatic events from which there is no possibility of escape. The sense of being trapped is a feature of the experience. Like other types of trauma, it can undermine a sense of safety in the world and beget hypervigilance, constant (and exhausting!) monitoring of the environment for the possibility of threat.
Secondary or vicarious trauma
Secondary or vicarious trauma arises from exposure to other people’s suffering and can strike those in professions that are called on to respond to injury and mayhem, notably physicians, first responders, and law enforcement. Over time, such individuals are at risk for compassion fatigue, whereby they avoid investing emotionally in other people in an attempt to protect themselves from experiencing distress.