There isn’t an agreed-upon definition of trauma and there’s lots of terminology about trauma that can feel confusing. In this episode, I define several of these terms and explain how they are related to each other. I use several examples to help you start to connect the dots about all kinds of trauma.
I’m gonna start with a story. And then we’re gonna talk about all the different kinds of trauma because there’s a lot of terminology that gets thrown around and it can be really confusing.
To be honest, sometimes I myself am still confused about things because different people use different words to mean different things. I wish that we could kind of all get on the same page with similar words, but that’s just how it goes when we live in a world with 8 billion people. Right? So the story about a week ago, I was expecting friends to show up at my house and the doorbell rang.
So I went to answer the door and it was. A door to door salesman. Not really salesman. He wasn’t really selling anything. He was asking for donations. He was asking specifically for credit card donations. Apparently they don’t take cash anymore. Post Covid. And he was specifically asking for donations for the YMCA for programs to support veterans and their families.
So being a trauma coach and knowing about trauma and knowing that it is highly likely that veterans are trauma free, my heart went out and so I agreed to donate. And because he didn’t take cash, he had to kind of step inside the house. It was really cold that day, so I didn’t wanna have the door open and I didn’t wanna be outside.
And he had this machine and we had to make a phone call. And, you know, it took a few minutes and there were some moments of time where we were just kind of standing there waiting. And so this young man, trying to be kind and just sort of chat and make small talk, I guess. And so somehow it came up, what do I do?
And I told him that I’m a trauma coach and we agreed that, you know, yeah, veterans have trauma and he’s like, oh, that’s so great you do that. But somehow I mentioned to him that I work mostly with, moms and the kind of trauma I deal with is less like the kind of trauma that veterans are dealing with.
Likely not that veterans can’t be dealing with developmental trauma, but that there’s other kinds of trauma. That was the main point. And, and this young man was, Like, oh, I didn’t know that. And you know, and it just got me thinking about all the different kinds of trauma and how many people don’t really understand all the kinds of trauma.
And that’s one reason why I have this podcast. So I thought it would be a great topic to address. So just from the get-go, I just wanna remind you that the word trauma comes from the Latin for wound. So this word trauma, originally was referenced to kind of physical wounds. Like if you get a cut, if you’re chopping something and you cut your finger, like a gunshot wound, that kind of thing.
It was sort of co-opted into the psychology space when post-traumatic stress disorder came onto the scene in, I don’t remember exactly the sixties or seventies, and it really became a thing in the eighties, this post-traumatic stress disorder. So one of the problems about trauma is that, There’s not an agreed upon definition.
I know I’ve mentioned that before on the podcast. It’s a buzzword and there’s a reason for that, but it’s sort of like, what does that really mean? When somebody’s talking about trauma, what are they really referring to? So I really just wanted to address lots of the different kinds of terminology that you might hear if you are diving deeper into understanding trauma.
Direct vs Indirect trauma
And if you’re listening to this podcast, it’s probably pretty likely I wanna start with direct versus indirect trauma. So a direct trauma is something that directly happens to you. You are in the car accident, you’re the one that goes to war and, and fights on the front lines. You are the victim of sexual assault or robbery or something like that.
That’s direct trauma, but there’s also indirect trauma. You can be a witness of violence or, I mean, even people can be watching the news and hear something and can be a bit traumatized from that. That would be indirect trauma. Didn’t directly happen to you. You heard about it or you witnessed something, and that can still have an effect on you.
Trauma vs trauma
So that’s the first thing. Very, very broad categories, right? Direct and indirect. Then, and I’ve talked about this before, but I just wanna revisit it for a moment here. The idea of Big T or capital T, trauma versus small T or lowercase T trauma. This is sort of the distinction behind time-based events, like a one-time event, like a car accident or a plane crash or childbirth or something like that, versus this sort of chronic traumas that happen.
And there are lots of different things that could happen over time. So that’s Big T versus little T. And the reason why we make that distinction is because when trauma was first being researched, it was thought that only these big T traumas, you know, a veteran going to war, um, a car accident, um, you know, a parent dying kind of thing.
Like we thought that these big events were the kind of created trauma and over time we have learned that some of these daily just everyday life things can also create trauma. So the big T are the things that most people think of when we think of trauma. We think of like 9/11 you know, those kinds of things.
And little T are more of like the hidden traumas, more of the traumas that not everybody would just look at it and be like, oh yes, that creates trauma.
Acute trauma vs Chronic trauma
So now I want to talk about acute trauma versus chronic trauma, and you’re gonna see that there is some overlap with big T and little T trauma. So, acute trauma, just like acute pain or, you know, The other ways we use this word acute is trauma that happens from one time defined event.
So we often think of this as shock trauma, so like going to war or a car accident. Those are the two that I always think of when I think of this acute trauma, this shock trauma, this big T trauma. You might also hear the term situational trauma like, it’s only when I’m in this situation, but it’s very defined by “only when I go home to visit my mom” or “only when I’m with this specific person” or whatever.
Only when I think of this time period in my life, that’s situational trauma, and it makes me think of situational depression. That, you know, we can have depression, but it’s not sort of a chronic, ongoing thing. It’s, it’s just sort of a short term based on a specific situation. And then when the situation goes away, the symptoms go away.
Another term that’s used is single incident trauma. So I think of this is like sexual assault or robbery or childbirth. Could also be that car accident, that plane crash, those kinds of things that happen only once, right? Single incident trauma, those are all acute traumas and words that we use for these acute traumas versus chronic trauma.
So chronic trauma is trauma that is incurred over time. The other word that we kind of use interchangeably with this chronic trauma is complex trauma. But complex trauma is usually in relationships. It usually has a relationship or an interrelational dynamic with it. So you could have a chronic trauma, like I think of people who went to World War II.
That could be thought of as big T trauma. It could be thought of as shock trauma, but that war lasted quite a long time. Right? So it could be also this sort of considered a chronic trauma over the course of several years. Oftentimes this complex trauma underneath this chronic trauma, something that happens over time, we think of like domestic violence.
Domestic violence usually is not a one time occurrence. It’s something that happens over and over again over time. Similarly, sexual abuse. Sometimes it can happen only once, but oftentimes sexual abuse happens multiple times over the course of time. So the other kind of trauma, the word that you might hear is developmental.
And this also falls under chronic trauma. And it also falls under complex trauma because it does have a relational dynamic in it. So developmental trauma are things that happen to us over time. There’s the chronic part of it as we are developing. So usually when you hear developmental trauma, we’re thinking of young kids, right?
We’re still developing, we’re still growing. You know, it starts. From age 0-20ish. That’s developmental trauma. A subset of developmental trauma is attachment trauma. If there are ruptures or wounds in the relationship between us and our primary caregivers, for example, adoption. Adoption is a chronic, complex developmental attachment.
You get separated from your original caregiver, which is your mother in whose womb you were developing, and all of a sudden you have a new mother. That can cause some wounds to happen in our nervous system, in our psyche.
The other thing is, could be kind of loss of a parent. If you lost a parent when you were really young, dealing with that loss over time could develop into a trauma. Now it doesn’t necessarily, but it could. So I hope that makes a little bit of sense. There’s lots of terminology. But I hope that clarifies what each type of trauma is really referring to and, and also with those examples.
But let me know if it’s not clear to you. The next word I want to address is collective trauma. So you might have heard this on social media, is this idea of collective trauma. Collective trauma is when a whole group of people is affected in a negative way. In a traumatic way. At the same time.
So there’s again, subsets of this. There can be cultural trauma. And there could also be generational trauma. Now, that generational trauma, I’ll come back to you in a minute, but collective trauma is something like Covid-19 where the whole world went through this trauma together. Where everything was shut down and we couldn’t do things that we were used to doing and, and we’re all thinking, what does this mean for the future and how do I keep myself safe in all of that? That was a trauma that our entire world experienced together. Also, slavery, right? Slavery is not just a collective trauma because it affected lots of people all at the same time, but it’s also a cultural trauma.
It’s a trauma that affected specific cultures, right? Um, 9/11 is a collective trauma, right? It affected all the cultures within the United States. It really affected the world at large, but I would consider it less of a cultural trauma because it was sort of all of the cultures. So, I mean, we could also think of wars, especially world wars, as a collective.
And there’s a variation in how much each of us is affected by these collective traumas, right? Generational trauma. This is, I put under the heading of collective trauma because it affects multiple generations or an entire generation at a time. But it’s also kind of separate because generational trauma really is referring to the traumas that are passed from one generation to the next through DNA.
So I’m gonna get a little technical here, but there’s something called epigenetics where our DNA is passed down to us from our parents, and the epigenetics is like what we are primed for in our DNA, if specific situations happen. So my mom had a lot of trauma, my grandmother had a lot of trauma that passed down specific DNA in my blood, in my bones. Then if scary or chaotic events happened, those DNAs were kind of like turned on, so to speak. And so then I was in a way more prone to trauma. And, and it’s super confusing how exactly this works, but basically it’s a combination of your genes and your experiences in life that turn those genes on or keep them.
So that is a thing. Trauma being passed down from generation to generation. So those are the terms that I wanted to address. And now I just kind of want to talk about like, some people say medical trauma or childbirth trauma, which is probably a type of medical trauma, religious trauma, loss trauma, abandonment trauma, marriage trauma, divorce trauma.
Like we kind of label, we want to categorize, it’s very normal for humans to wanna categorize things. And so you might hear all these terms. But what I want you to think about is where does it fit into these terms and as in as far as direct or indirect, acute or chronic or collective, right? So there’s lots and lots of different terms that you’ll see.
If you even just Google different kinds of trauma, you’ll come across articles that list dozens of different kinds of traumas. It doesn’t really matter. The trauma is what really matters is to understand that essentially all trauma is how the body deals with that survival energy, right?
When we’re in a situation where we feel like we need to survive, where it’s kind of, it feels like life or death, whether it is or not, that energy rushes into our body telling us to fight or to run away. And that energy, we don’t always get that energy, or that stress response resolved.
So trauma is always what, or how the body is dealing with that stress response, that survival energy. Okay. All right. I want you to just take a breath. Just breathe in through your nose and out through your nose because this can be a lot. It can be a lot. Hearing about all of these kinds of trauma and how to make sense of it all.
And with trauma healing, we are always very sensitive to what feels overwhelming. So I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by this, which me saying it doesn’t make it so, but I want you to just feel a little bit more informed, have a little bit more context to go along with some of the terminologies that you might be hearing.
So just take a breath. Just sit with it for a moment. You’re fine. Right in this moment.