Lifeskills Mental Health Blog

Understanding Trauma Types: Acute, Chronic and Complex

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Understanding Trauma Types: Acute, Chronic and Complex

Trauma is a nearly inevitable part of the human experience. Studies suggest that approximately 90% of people experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetimes, and exposure to multiple traumas is common (1)

While the experience of trauma is almost universal, the way trauma affects us—our moods, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—is much harder to predict and categorize. One way clinicians and mental health professionals seek to distinguish trauma responses is through different trauma types. 

Understanding the different types of trauma, as well as their features and symptoms, can help trauma survivors put a name to their experiences. It can also empower them as they seek treatment or navigate a treatment program. 

Let’s explore the three primary types of trauma, as well as their causes, effects, and treatment options. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma—sometimes called psychological trauma—is an emotional response to events or experiences that cause extreme fear, distress, or feelings of helplessness or powerlessness.

Psychological trauma can be caused by a singular incident, multiple distressing events, or chronic, ongoing experiences. 

Examples of traumatic events include: 

  • Natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, hurricanes)
  • Acts of violence (physical assault, beatings)
  • Serious accidents that cause injury or death
  • Witnessing serious bodily harm or death of another person(s)
  • Military combat experiences
  • Being a prisoner of war
  • Being kidnapped, tortured, enslaved, or held captive
  • Being a refugee or asylum seeker
  • Childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment
  • Domestic abuse
  • Being stalked

It is normal to feel unsettled or fearful after a traumatic experience. This is part of the body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response.

Common reactions to trauma include:

  • Feeling nervous, anxious, fearful, sad, or angry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having trouble focusing
  • Thinking about the event constantly

Most of the time, the human body decompresses and relaxes fairly quickly after a real or perceived threat has passed. However, sometimes a traumatic experience overwhelms an individual’s ability to process it; this can cause debilitating symptoms that last far beyond the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Some people experience persistent anxiety, hypervigilance, intrusive memories, nightmares, and emotional disturbances for weeks, months, or years after the event occurs. 

If a person experiences the symptoms of trauma for one month or longer, they may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a serious but highly treatable condition; however, it often requires specialized mental health treatment.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks or nightmares that cause a person to relive the traumatic experience
  • Intrusive, recurring memories or dreams about the event
  • Physical signs of stress (e.g., sweating, racing heart, trouble breathing)
  • Avoiding places, events, or objects that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Avoiding thinking about the event or examining feelings related to the event
  • Being easily startled 
  • Feeling tense, guarded, or on edge
  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Having difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Having gaps in your memory of the event or difficulty remembering specifics about the event
  • Experiencing feelings of hopelessness and low self-worth
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyable
  • Withdrawing from friends and family

If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms for at least a month following a traumatic experience, it may be PTSD. If left untreated, the symptoms of PTSD can become more frequent and severe; this can lead to increased distress in a person’s daily life and affect their ability to maintain relationships and fulfill personal responsibilities.

The Three Types of Trauma

The three main types of trauma are acute, chronic, and complex trauma. Understanding different trauma types can help clinicians identify the most effective treatment approach for people suffering from trauma-related psychological symptoms.

For trauma survivors, knowledge is a powerful tool in advocating for their mental health and treatment needs on the journey to healing. 

Acute Trauma

Also known as acute stress disorder, acute trauma is typically triggered by a singular, short-lived, unexpected event that produces intense feelings of danger and distress. 

Acute trauma can cause a variety of short-term physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms that arise within minutes or hours of a traumatic event. These symptoms include anxiety, intense fear and hypervigilance, low mood, sleep problems, recurrent flashbacks or nightmares, and dissociation. Physical symptoms include increased heart rate, trouble breathing, sweating, nausea, and headaches.

Events that produce an acute trauma response include:

  • Car accidents
  • Workplace accidents like chemical spills or machinery malfunctions 
  • Being physically attacked or mugged
  • Being sexually assaulted or threatened with sexual assault
  • Natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Military combat incidents
  • Serious health diagnoses

Acute stress disorder is a short-term condition; symptoms last from a few days to a few weeks after a traumatic event. If symptoms persist longer than one month, an individual may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma is typically triggered by prolonged, repetitive exposure to traumatic stressors. This type of trauma is associated with severe, long-term disruptions in emotional, psychological, and behavioral health as well as physical health problems. 

Experiences linked to chronic trauma include:

  • Childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and abandonment
  • Domestic abuse
  • Being tortured
  • Being held captive
  • Being human trafficked or forced into sexual slavery
  • Being a prisoner of war
  • Being a refugee or asylum seeker
  • Military combat incidents

Chronic trauma produces the same symptoms as acute stress disorder. Unlike acute trauma, however, these symptoms persist for months or years and often increase in frequency and severity without treatment. 

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is triggered by prolonged exposure to various types of severe trauma, often within the context of interpersonal or caregiving relationships. Complex trauma is most often associated with childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment, but it can result from any situation that makes a person feel persistent terror, fear, or hopelessness with no chance of escape.

Events and experiences associated with complex trauma include: 

  • Prolonged childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment
  • Prolonged sexual abuse, sexual slavery, or being human trafficked
  • Prolonged domestic violence or abuse
  • Being held captive
  • Witnessing genocide
  • Living in a war zone 
  • Being a prisoner of war
  • Growing up in or being a member of a religious cult

Complex trauma is associated with wide-ranging, long-term negative effects on a person’s physical health, emotional health, psychological and cognitive functioning, and ability to maintain healthy relationships. 

Complex Trauma Symptoms

The symptoms of complex trauma can overlap with the symptoms of numerous other psychological disorders. It produces all the same symptoms as an acute stress disorder, but it can also cause intense feelings of dissociation, derealization, emotional dysregulation, a fragmented sense of self, and identity confusion. Because of these additional symptoms, people with complex trauma are often mistakenly diagnosed with borderline personality disorder or other personality disorders.

Without proper support and treatment, complex trauma can cause severe psychological and emotional distress. Survivors of complex trauma are more likely to experience substance use disorders and other addictions, and they have a higher risk of developing co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. These comorbidities result in a dual diagnosis, further complicating the treatment and recovery journey. 

Many survivors of long-term trauma develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). This condition is closely related to traditional PTSD but requires a more nuanced treatment approach due to the highly distressing and complex traumas involved. 

How Does Lifeskills South Florida Treat Trauma?

At Lifeskills, we treat the full continuum of post-traumatic stress responses, including both PTSD and complex PTSD. Each client receives an individual assessment that informs a customized treatment plan based on their needs. We also specialize in multiple treatment methods that allow us to address multiple trauma responses and trauma types.

Lifeskills South Florida offers trauma tracks where clients have a space to safely process issues related to their traumatic experiences. These groups offer psychoeducation and concrete skill-building to help clients cope with the debilitating aftereffects of trauma, including flashbacks, nightmares, and dissociation.

Additionally, the treatment team at Lifeskills includes specially trained clinicians who provide targeted trauma treatment, including prolonged exposure therapy (PET), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

If you’re a trauma survivor, you don’t have to walk the path alone. We provide compassionate, evidence-based treatment to help you find peace and healing. Call us at 954-953-1742 or submit an online contact form to speak with an admissions specialist and start your journey today.


  1. Journal of Traumatic Stress. (2013). National Estimates of Exposure to Traumatic Events and PTSD Prevalence Using DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria.
  2. American Psychological Association. (2024). Trauma.
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Coping With Traumatic Events.
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. (2024). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.




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