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Types Of Trauma and Their Effects

What Is Trauma

The word trauma originates in Greek and means “physical wound.” Nowadays, trauma often refers to psychological trauma caused by deeply distressing events or disturbing experiences such as life-threatening situations.​1​

A traumatic experience is something beyond a person’s normal experiences, and it involves extremely challenging mental and physical stress for that individual.

That means, what is traumatic for an individual, may not be as traumatic for another.​2​

woman standing in front of a burnt down house

Types of Trauma

There are different ways to group trauma, and researchers often create their own categories for different studies. 

Whereas some studies compared survivors of early-onset versus late-onset traumas, others distinguished between single incidents vs. a series of events.​3​

As a result, there isn’t one widely accepted way to define trauma types.

Here are a few categorizations researchers have studied.

Simple vs. Complex

One of the most basic categorizations is simple versus complex trauma.

Simple trauma, also known as type I or acute trauma, is a one-time, short traumatic event that is life-threatening or threatens serious damage or physical injury. Examples include serious accidents, house fires, and natural disasters. Simple trauma may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Complex trauma, also known as type II, developmental, relational, or attachment trauma, involves multiple incidents that are longer, with personal threats, violence, and violation. Examples include child abuse, child neglect, sibling abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, bullying, and domestic violence. Repetitive trauma may lead to complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). C-PTSD is a more complex version of PTSD involving more symptoms and is harder to treat.​4​

World Health Organization (WHO)

In the recent World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys conducted by WHO, traumas were divided into seven categories.​5​

  1. War-related trauma – combat experience, purposely injured or killed someone, saw atrocities, relief worker or peacekeeper, civilian in a war zone, civilian in the region of terror.
  2. Physical violence – violent assault in childhood, physically assaulted, mugged, kidnapped.
  3. Intimate partner or sexual violence – physically abused by a romantic partner, raped, sexual assault, stalking.
  4. Accidents – automobile accidents, life-threatening accidents, natural disasters, toxic chemical exposure, man-made disaster, accidentally injured/killed someone, life-threatening illness.
  5. Unexpected death of a loved one
  6. Other traumas of loved ones or witnessed a child with serious illness – other traumas to loved ones, witnessed parental violence, or witnessed injury, death, dead body.
  7. Other traumas

Five types of trauma

The University of Montreal researchers categorized trauma into five types.​6​

  • Interpersonal trauma – physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, violent assault with a weapon, sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, captivity
  • Accident-related trauma – transportation accident or a severe accident at work
  • Disaster-related trauma – natural disaster, fire, or explosion
  • Medical trauma – sudden catastrophes such as waking during surgery or anaphylactic shock​7​
  • War-related trauma – combat or exposure to a war zone in the military or as a civilian

National Child Traumatic Stress Network categorization

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network presents more granular categories of trauma.​8​

  • Sexual trauma
  • Physical trauma
  • Emotional trauma
  • Emotional Neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • War trauma
  • Illness/Medical
  • Serious injury/accident
  • Natural disaster
  • Kidnapping
  • Traumatic bereavement, sudden loss of a parent
  • Forced displacement
  • Impaired caregiver
  • Violence, including community trauma

Based on the area of individual functioning

Kira, I. (1997) categorized trauma based on its impact on different areas of individual functioning.

  • Attachment traumaEarly childhood trauma that affects a child’s attachment formation.
  • Autonomy / Identity / Individuation trauma – physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, slavery, prisoners of war, etc.
  • Interdependence trauma – losing long-standing interpersonal relationships, such as moving from school or school for a child or refugee experience.
  • Achievement trauma – failure to achieve a target essential to survival, such as lay-off or unemployment for a prolonged period of time.
  • Survival trauma – a threat to life, such as war, drive-by shooting, road accidents, natural disasters, etc.

Four types of trauma exposure

  • Direct personal exposure
  • Witnessing trauma to others
  • Indirect exposure through traumatic experiences of family members or other close associates
  • Repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event

Additional trauma types

Some types of trauma can also be categorized based on particular situations.

  • Intergenerational trauma – also known as transgenerational trauma or inherited trauma, refers to the transmission of trauma from one generation to another.​9​
  • Secondary trauma – also known as vicarious trauma, indirect trauma, and compassion fatigue, is the emotional and psychological stress experienced by individuals exposed to the firsthand trauma of others. 
  • Collective trauma – a shared psychological and emotional experience that affects a large group of people or an entire community due to a devastating event, such as a natural disaster, acts of terrorism, war, and genocide.
  • Insidious trauma –  ongoing negative experiences associated with living as a member of an oppressed group.​10​
  • Organizational trauma – organizations impacted by traumatic events directly or indirectly.​11​

Risks of Negative Effects

Symptoms of trauma can develop after individuals are exposed to distressing experiences, but not all of them do.

Several risk factors contribute to PTSD development.

Trauma types

According to the WHO WMH surveys, the type of trauma may affect how likely one will experience symptoms after dangerous experiences.

PTSD symptoms are most likely to develop after traumas involving interpersonal relationships, including sexual and physical abuse by a romantic partner.

Age and gender

The effects of trauma can vary depending on the stages of development when it occurs.

The risk of developing symptoms is highest when the trauma occurs during childhood, adolescence, and senior years (65+).

Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men exposed to the same traumas.


The adverse effects of trauma can accumulate.

Traumatized people with a history of prior exposure are at a higher risk of developing PTSD after subsequent traumas.​12​

The effects of cumulative trauma also depend on the number of types experienced. The more types of trauma a person encounters, the more symptoms they tend to exhibit.


The degree of betrayal involved in the trauma also contributes to the severity of its consequences. 

In cases of abuse-related trauma, incidents committed by someone close to the victim are associated with more symptoms than those committed by a distant individual. Trauma survivors often experience more negative self-perceptions and increased vulnerability to further victimization.​13​

Effects of Trauma

Here are some of the most common trauma symptoms.

Brain Development

Early-life trauma can cause increased changes in brain structure responsible for stress response, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, leading to long-term dysregulation of the nervous system, alternations in memory function, and deficits in new learning.

Some of the impacts of trauma may not be evident until adulthood.​14​

Cognitive development

Early childhood trauma is also linked to poorer IQ, attention, memory, and learning. All of these deficits contribute to lower academic performance in children.​15​


Trauma is associated with worse inhibitory control and more antisocial behaviors in children.

Adult trauma is linked to antisocial personality disorder.​16​

Coping mechanisms

Trauma survivors may have difficulties regulating attention and inhibiting their emotional response, leading to the development of maladaptive coping mechanisms and detrimental behaviors such as substance abuse, alcohol use, and self-harming behavior.​17​

Mental health conditions

Trauma can cause psychological harm and increase the risk of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, dissociation, and acute stress disorder.

Those who have experienced single-event traumas may develop PTSD or PTSD symptoms.

Children who have experienced chronic trauma are prone to Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD),  a more complex version of PTSD.

Common trauma symptoms include repeated memories of the stressful event, traumatic reenactment, pessimistic attitudes about people and life, fear, anger, a negative view of the world, and a limited sense of any future.​18​

Immune system

Ongoing trauma can cause chronic stress leading to hypertension, impaired growth, and immune system suppression in adulthood. 

These adults have poorer physical health and have more age-related disease risks.​19​


Traum can also result in physiologic and anatomic effects on the body. Survivors can experience a broad range of physical symptoms and somatic issues.​20​

Also See:
How To Overcome Childhood Trauma
15 Trauma Responses and Reactions


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Updated on May 14th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *