Understanding Psychological Effects of Trauma

What Is Trauma?

Trauma describes the high levels of psychological, emotional, and physical distress that a person experiences in response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event. A person who has been traumatized may find themselves overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness, a diminished sense of self, and/or an inability to cope with or feel a full range of emotions and experience

What Does “Traumatized” Mean? 

The term “traumatized” has become a commonplace blanket term in our culture to describe a wide variety of reactions to various unpleasant experiences. People use the term “traumatized” to describe everything from bad high school yearbook photos to finding a hair in their food. 

When someone is traumatized by an event that presents a real threat to a person’s physical safety or emotional wellbeing, however, the psychological effects extend far beyond temporary embarrassment or disgust. A traumatized person will often experience long-lasting effects that disrupt their daily life and ability to function.   

What Are the Three Types of Trauma? 

Psychologists distinguish between the three types of trauma based on the nature of what type of event or circumstance triggered it: 

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma results from distressing or harmful experiences or events that happened repeatedly over an extended period of time. These might include: 

  • Bullying
  • Neglect 
  • Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Long-term serious illness
  • Extreme situations, such as a war or combat

Unlike acute trauma, where symptoms usually present immediately following the event, chronic trauma symptoms may not come to the surface for some time—in some cases, even years after the event.

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma refers to trauma brought on from a single, isolated incident or event. Common examples of such events include rape, mass shootings, an accident, or a natural disaster wherein the event is extreme enough to threaten a person’s physical or emotional security. 

Even though the event may last as long as only a few minutes or even seconds, it creates a lasting impression in the person’s mind that may lead to any of the following: 

  • Confusion
  • Irritation
  • Sleeping fitfully
  • Inability to focus
  • Lack of self-care or hygiene 
  • Excessive anxiety or panic
  • A seemingly unjustified lack of trust
  • A feeling of disconnection from surroundings
  • Aggressive behavior

While acute trauma has not been studied as extensively as chronic trauma, there is some evidence that conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a long-term effect of acute trauma.

When someone is traumatized by an event that presents a real threat to a person’s physical safety or emotional wellbeing, however, the psychological effects extend far beyond temporary embarrassment or disgust.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma describes when someone has experienced exposure to multiple, varied traumatic events. Such events often tend to be invasive and/or interpersonal in nature.

Examples of events that foster complex trauma include:

  • Neglect, abandonment, or abuse during childhood
  • Living in areas of civil unrest with severe poverty or near a war zone 
  • Slavery, torture, or kidnapping
  • Sexual abuse or forced incestual relations 
  • Prolonged exposure to violence or abuse in household 

Complex trauma affects a person’s daily life, as it alters their perception of themselves, their relationships, and the world around them.

Can You Be Traumatized By Another Person’s Experiences? 

Yes; a person does not necessarily have to be the direct victim of a traumatic event in order to experience effects from it. There is an additional type of trauma called “secondary” or “vicarious” trauma. 

This type is usually the result of exposure to other people’s suffering. Secondary trauma most often affects those in professions where people are called into situations involving intense conflict or severe injury—specifically, physicians, first responders, and law enforcement. 

Over time, such individuals are at risk for “compassion fatigue,” whereby they avoid investing in other people emotionally in an attempt to protect themselves from experiencing distress.

Types of Childhood Trauma and Their Psychological Effects

Cognitive setbacks are not uncommon for those who experience childhood trauma. This can make it difficult to perform in school and connect with their peers. 

Anyone who experiences trauma later in life may still have similar psychological and physiological changes take place. Rather than at school, these difficulties may show up in the workplace or when accomplishing day-to-day responsibilities.

Examples of Childhood Trauma Symptoms

In addition to the traumatic experiences listed above under the three types of trauma, the death of a loved one is another event that can be particularly jarring for a child. Regardless of which type of childhood trauma a person experiences, the effects of that experience can show up while they are still young or even years later.

Kids tend to express some form of behavior change following exposure to trauma. Examples of trauma symptoms you may observe in a child include: 

  • Unusual sadness or withdrawal 
  • Sudden new fears
  • Bedwetting 
  • OCD behaviors 
  • Separation anxiety
  • A loss of interest in activities they enjoyed
  • Nightmares, night terrors, or sleep disturbances
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Unexplainable anger or irritability
  • Pains such as stomachaches, headaches, or any other physical ailments that seem to have no obvious explanation 

Examples of childhood trauma symptoms that appear in adulthood might look like: 

  • Anger
  • Avoidance
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Problems with trust
  • Reliving the event (flashbacks or nightmares)
  • Self-destructive or risky behaviors
  • Difficulty forming attachments or maintaining healthy relationships
  • A tendency to form unhealthy relationships 

While it can develop in adulthood, complex trauma typically begins during childhood, during the time the brain is developing. When a child is traumatized, they often experience feelings of distrust and low self-worth throughout their life. 

As they grow, traumatized individuals may “act out” in aggressive, harmful, or disruptive ways as their body and brain is processing trauma. When this happens, victims of trauma do not necessarily know or understand why they do what they do. 

These actions can then lead to feelings of guilt or shame, which can bring about depression, anxiety, self-harm, and reclusivity. Furthermore, the lack of ability to connect with the world around them sometimes leads to coping with drugs and/or alcohol in an effort to temporarily alleviate these negative feelings. 

What is Trauma Bonding?

A strong community of support is an important aspect of anyone’s life—especially those who are dealing with trauma. However, there are types of attachments that can be formed throughout, as a result of, or following trauma that lead to extremely unhealthy relationship dynamics. One of these is called trauma bonding. 

A trauma bond is created when a person receives intermittent positive reinforcement while at the same time experiencing emotional or physical trauma. 

Because trauma activates the stress reactors in the brain, your emotions essentially start to take over decision-making processes. Thus, even the smallest amount of comfort, affirmation, or affection received while still under duress can cause the brain to associate this person with safety. 

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is not something that happens accidentally. Whether consciously or subconsciously, abusive partners use manipulation techniques to create an almost drug-like dependence upon themselves in the victim. 

The seven (7) stages of trauma bonding that an abuser will move through look like this: 

1. Love bombing: intense flattery and displays of affection to gain trust

2. Get you hooked and gain your trust: rushed commitments and/or promises (later broken) to make you feel bound to them

3. Shift to criticism and devaluation: belittling, blaming, and unrealistic demands while simultaneously seeking validation 

4. Gaslighting: twisting of facts, accusation, and denial of victim’s thoughts, memories, and experiences 

5. Resignation & submission: victim becomes exhausted by the effort to please or reason with abuser, so they concede to doing things “their way” in order to resolve or avoid conflict  

6. Loss of sense of self: victim has no boundaries, control, or even influence in the relationship; likely disconnected from friends, family, and principles and even their own personality

7. Emotional addiction: spikes of cortisol from stress followed by dopamine highs when the abuser provides positive affirmation create a cycle of addiction in the brain 

While codependency can also be present in a trauma bond relationship, they are not the same thing. Codependency describes when someone is consumed by the need to care for another person—often enabling unhealthy behaviors. A victim of a trauma bond, however, is “addicted” to receiving validation or affection from an abusing individual. 

A trauma bond is created when a person receives intermittent positive reinforcement while at the same time experiencing emotional or physical trauma.

How To Recover from Emotional Trauma

Trauma rarely affects only one area of a person’s life. The emotional, physical, and psychological effects of trauma can be both far-reaching and difficult to detect. This is why it is important to pursue healing through multiple avenues as well. Here are a couple of methods for how to recover from emotional trauma: 

Movement & Exercise

Psychological effects of trauma can take a toll on a person’s body. However, luckily, the reverse is also true: the body can affect the brain. Since exercise releases endorphins and stimulates the central nervous system, it is an effective way to combat the effects of trauma.

“Exercise” doesn’t have to be restricted to the gym. In fact, the best type of movement for mental health is one that serves to engage your mind with your body. Examples of this might be martial arts, yoga, rock climbing, horseback riding, dancing, rafting—and many others!

Trauma rarely affects only one area of a person’s life.

Connect with Others 

There is a great deal of emphasis nowadays on taking some alone time for “self-care,” and this is valuable advice. However, healthy support in the form of a strong community makes a measurable difference in how a person handles mental health struggles. 

Trauma rarely affects only one area of a person’s life...This is why it is important to pursue healing through multiple avenues as well.

Not every traumatized person needs to become an extrovert in order to heal. The key is to strike a balance between refreshing solitude that does not sink into seclusion and social engagement that doesn’t become a distraction to avoid all unpleasant feelings.  


This balance will not look the same for everyone—there is no magic number of hours to spend alone or with people. Still, engaging with others can have a similar, if not more powerful healthy effect on the brain as exercise can. Activities like taking a class, joining a group trip or excursion, or learning a new hobby can be a great way to meet people with similar interests to you.  

Seek Professional Guidance for Processing Trauma 

Friends and family can be a potent source of support. Sometimes, however, you will simply need the expertise, understanding, and sympathy of a professional counselor. Speaking to a therapist, psychiatrist, or counseling professional can give you the benefit of an educated, unbiased voice to help you process trauma. 

This can be one-on-one or in a group setting as well. Trauma treatment professionals and support groups can equip you with practical tools, and sometimes even shared experiences that help you develop healthy habits. 

Help Others 

One of the most powerful things you can do for yourself is to “do for others.” Especially for those who have been victims of trauma bonding, meeting the needs of others by the power of your own choice can help you lessen feelings of helplessness, learn (or re-learn) your own strengths, and find fulfilling ways to connect with others. 

Experience Trauma and Mental Health Treatment In Arizona

Whether or not we realize it, trauma plays a part in many of our lives and in the choices we make. Left untreated, it can contribute to countless problems: mental health disorders, dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, and even physical pain. It is an invisible and devastating force.

At Sequoia Behavioral Health, you’ll experience integrated therapy that addresses your mental health symptoms and their root causes. Our staff is trained in a wide range of mental health treatment, and we place a special emphasis on understanding and resolving trauma in our day-to-day programming.