What is Trauma?

We refer to trauma from a psychological perspective to describe experiences that are emotionally painful and distressing and that overwhelm an individual’s capacity to cope. Although there has been some debate about how to define a traumatic event, most definitions agree that when internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with external threat, the experience is one of trauma.  The powerlessness that a person experiences is a primary trait of traumatization (Van der Kolk 2005).



What Is Trauma?

  • experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope
  • experiences of chronic adversity (e.g., discrimination, racism, oppression, poverty)

Trauma involves deeply distressing experience(s). Often these experiences generate emotional shock that creates significant and sometimes lasting impacts on a person’s mental, physical and emotional capacities.

Trauma is highly pervasive. Surveys of the general population suggest that at least half of all adults in the United States have experienced at least one major type of trauma.

A traumatic event can be a single experience or a series of experiences. Trauma often occurs when our basic life assumptions are shattered (such as “the world is safe,” “people are good,” “I am in control”). After a traumatic event, an individual may experience feelings of powerlessness, fear, or hopelessness.

An individual can be traumatized in a variety of ways (see Types of Trauma below). Trauma can also result from long-term exposure to situations such as extreme poverty, or enduring racism, discrimination, and/or oppression.

Types of Trauma

(Information sourced from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Reference)

Early Childhood Trauma

Early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children between the ages of birth and six. These traumas can be the result of adverse experiences (such as child physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence) or the result of natural disasters, accidents, or war. Young children also may experience traumatic stress in response to painful medical procedures (medical trauma) or the sudden loss of a parent/caregiver (traumatic grief).

Childhood Neglect

Child neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver does not provide a child with the age appropriate care he or she needs, even when they have the ability to afford the care or they are offered help to provide care and refuse. Neglect can mean not providing food, clothing, shelter, medical care, mental health treatment, and/or prescribed medicines the child needs. Neglect can also mean disregarding the educational needs by keeping a child out of school or from special education. Neglect also includes exposing a child to dangerous environments wherein there is poor supervision or incapable caregivers. Lastly, neglect can also be abandoning a child or expelling her/him from home. Neglect is the most common form of abuse reported to child welfare authorities.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse means causing or attempting to cause physical pain or injury. It can result from punching, beating, kicking, burning, or harming a child in other ways. Physical abuse can consist of a single act or several acts. In extreme cases, it can result in death.

Sexual Abuse

Behaviors that are sexually abusive often involve bodily contact, such as sexual kissing, touching, fondling of genitals, and intercourse. However, behaviors may be sexually abusive even if they do not involve contact, such as of genital exposure (“flashing”), verbal pressure for sex, and sexual exploitation for purposes of human trafficking or pornography.

Psychological/Emotional Abuse

Psychological, emotional, or mental abuse often involves continued verbal aggression (insults, constant criticism), dominant behaviors (controlling, intimidation, manipulation, refusal to ever be pleased), or jealous behaviors (accusations, intimidation). Psychological/emotional abuse often occurs in situations where there is an imbalance of power – such as in domestic violence, bullying, child abuse, and/or workplace harassment.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence—sometimes called intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, or battering—includes actual or threatened physical or sexual violence or psychological/emotional abuse between adolescents or adults in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence can be directed toward a current or former spouse/partner, whether they are heterosexual or same-sex partners. Perpetrators of domestic violence can be male or female and victims of domestic violence can be male or female. (Please note that this mental health definition is broader than the legal definition, which may be restricted to acts of physical harm.)

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is layered trauma. The term complex trauma describes the repeated exposure to multiple or prolonged traumatic events. Typically, complex trauma involves the simultaneous (same time) or sequential (one after the other) experience of child maltreatment – including psychological maltreatment, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and/or domestic violence – that is chronic (ongoing), begins in early childhood, and occurs within the primary family or caregiving system. Exposure to these initial traumatic experiences can lead to increased risk for trauma exposure in adolescence and adulthood (due to the loss of safety and direction and compromised ability to detect or respond appropriately to danger).

Community Violence

Community violence includes predatory violence (robbery, for example) and violence that comes from personal conflicts between people who are not family members. It may include brutal acts such as shootings, rapes, stabbings, and beatings. Community violence can be traumatic if you are the focus of or a bystander to a specific violent act. However, community violence can also traumatize a person (or a community) by merely living in what feels like a dangerous situation day-to-day.

Homelessness Trauma

Homelessness can be traumatic in and of itself. In addition, it is common for people who have experienced other types of trauma to experience homelessness. People experiencing homelessness have lost the protection of home and community and are often marginalized, isolated, and stigmatized. People who are experiencing homelessness are highly vulnerable to violence and re-victimization.

Refugee and War Zone Trauma

Refugee and war zone trauma include exposure to war, political violence, or torture. Refugee trauma can be the result of living in a region affected by bombing, shooting, or looting, as well as forced displacement to a new home due to political reasons.

Multi-Generational or Historical Trauma

The collective emotional and psychological injury both over the lifespan and across generations, resulting from a devastating history of genocide and/or systemic racism.

Examples of populations who have experienced this type of trauma include:

  • African American descendants of former slaves
  • Indigenous Peoples of North American:
    • First Nations peoples of Canada
    • American Indian peoples of the United States
    • Alaska Native Peoples
    • Native Hawaiians
  • Survivors and families of Japanese Internees
  • Holocaust survivors and their families
  • WWII POWs, veterans and their families
  • Korean War Veterans and families
  • Vietnam Veterans and their families
  • Families of the Armenian Genocide
  • Immigrants and families from SE Asia – Vietnam and Cambodia
  • Immigrants from the former Yugoslavia
  • Australian Aboriginal Populations
  • Survivors and families of African war/genocide survivors

Natural Disasters

A natural disaster is any natural catastrophe (for example, tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes) or any fire, flood, or explosion that causes enough damage that local, state, or federal agencies and disaster relief organizations are called into action. Disasters can result from a human-made event (such as a nuclear reactor explosion), but if the damage is caused intentionally, it is classified as an act of terrorism.


Terrorism is defined in a variety of formal, legal ways, but the essential element is the intent to inflict psychological damage on an adversary. The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Terrorism includes attacks by individuals acting in isolation (for example, sniper attacks), as well as, attacks by groups or people acting for groups (for example, September 11th, 2001).


For more information about the different types of trauma: