The Science of Trauma (and 3 Types of Trauma)

Blog Mind The Science of Trauma (and 3 Types of Trauma)

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7.18.2023 0 comments

Here’s a pretty terrifying statistic: according to the National Council for Wellbeing [1], it’s estimated that roughly 70% of U.S. adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life.

Read that again: 70%!

That means that out of everyone you know, the majority of them have experienced trauma. Possibly including you.

What’s truly scary about this statistic is that many of us never realize how much trauma affects us until the symptoms start to manifest. Only then do we see just how much damage it has caused to our brains (and, by extension, our bodies), and only with a great deal of work can we heal from it.

In this article, we want to dive deep into the science of trauma, taking a closer look at what trauma is, what “types” of trauma there are, how it impacts your mind and body, and how it manifests itself as physical symptoms.

We’ll also share how to recognize the signs of trauma and what you can do about it—because no one should have to live with the effects of trauma.

Understanding Trauma from a Scientific Standpoint

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined by the dictionary as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.”

However, the Trauma Informed Care Implementation Resource Center has a fuller, more in-depth definition [2]: “Trauma is a pervasive problem. It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.”

Notice how it shifts the focus away from merely the experience described by the dictionary (something external to you), and instead focuses on what that experience does to your body.

The Three Types of Trauma

There are a lot of different things that can be considered “trauma” or “traumatic”. One expert resource [3] cites a list of them, including:

  • Loss

  • Physical, sexual, or domestic abuse

  • Community violence

  • Kidnapping

  • School violence

  • Traumatic grief

  • Deprivation and neglect

  • Medical illness or injury

  • Medical procedures (such as surgeries)

  • Being the victim of a crime

  • Natural disasters

  • Accidents

All of these experiences can inflict trauma on your brain.

There are three “types” of trauma to know about:

  1. Acute trauma. This is a one-time trauma, stemming from a single incident.

  2. Chronic trauma. This is trauma that is sustained as a result of repeated and prolonged exposure to traumatic events (for example, domestic abuse).

  3. Complex trauma. This is trauma that is sustained as a result of multiple and varied traumatic experiences, or traumatic events of an interpersonal and/or invasive nature (for example, sexual and physical abuse experienced during kidnapping).

All three types of trauma can have significant negative effects on your brain, which in turn can manifest in your body.

How Trauma Impacts Your Mind and Body

There is still so much about trauma that has yet to be fully understood, but experts [4] have pinpointed a few structures in your brain that can be directly impacted by trauma. These structures include:

  • The cortex, which is vital for our social behavior, expression of our personalities, and plays a significant role in more complex cognitive behaviors.

  • The amygdala, which helps us to understand and process all of our emotions.

  • The hippocampus, which is necessary for spatial navigation and plays a crucial role in our memory.

The acute trauma can directly impact these structures in the brain, but they’re not the only thing affected.

When we experience these traumatic events, our bodies go into “fight or flight mode” or a “biological alarm state”. Our body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, along with significant fear. Our brains stop functioning at full capacity and we are hit with the urge to flee from or fight against whatever is triggering our fear.

In the long-term, people who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events or circumstances may actually find their brains are “overloaded” by the alarm state. The repeated overloading can damage previously healthy or “normal” neural connections and actually re-wire parts of the brain (those mentioned above).

This disruption to your brain’s architecture can compromise your cognitive function, impairing social development and leading to emotional and mental side effects.

Symptoms of Trauma: How Your Brain Tells You It’s Not Okay

According to UMass Chan Medical School [5], there are three principal types of symptoms that let you know your body is being affected by trauma or traumatic stress:

  1. Physiological hyperarousal. You feel like you are in a constant state of vigilance, as if the moment you relax the pain, trauma, or fear will return. You have an exaggerated startle response, your sleep is disturbed, and you struggle with concentration and attention.

  2. Avoidance of reminders and numbing of responsiveness. You actively (be it consciously or unconsciously) avoid anything, anything, or anyone who might remind you of the traumatic event. You withdraw socially, and your playfulness and range affect are restricted. You largely “go numb”.

  3. Re-experiencing. You’ll relive and re-experience the traumatic event through your dreams, thoughts, and even “flashback” recollections.

How to Recognize the Signs Of Trauma

There are lots of ways that trauma can affect not only your mind, but your body, your behavior, your cognition, and your psyche.

Cascade Behavioral Health [6] has a complete list, including:

(take screenshots of the list rather than typing it all as text.)

What to Do About Trauma

Recognizing the symptoms and side effects of trauma is just the first step. You can’t live with it forever; it’s just going to keep causing more damage to your brain, altering your brain structure, and further impeding your chances at living a healthy life.

The American Psychological Association [7] has some good advice to help you to begin coping with traumatic stress:

Confront those feelings. As terrifying as they are, you have to face your feelings eventually (either alone or with the help of a professional). Avoidance behaviors can actually exacerbate stress and increase the damage caused. The sort of behavior used to numb or escape from the feelings—such as heavy drinking, taking strong substances, etc.—can lead to further health and psychological problems.

Lean on those around you. Get help and support from friends, family, coworkers, and anyone you can trust. Even if you’re not yet ready to discuss or share the traumatic event, just having them nearby and knowing you can count on them can help to decrease the fear and reduce the hypervigilance.

Give it time. You won’t heal from a serious physical wound overnight. It takes days, weeks, or even months. The same is true with mental and emotional injuries sustained inflicted by a traumatic event or events. Recovery will be a slow, day by day process. Give it time, and be kind to yourself as you go through the healing journey.

Take care of yourself. Eat right, be active, sleep well, engage in art and creative pursuits, and do everything you can to “cope” in the healthiest way possible. It may seem all the more difficult—or even impossible—because of what you’re struggling with, but it’s because you’re struggling that it becomes all the more important to prioritize your self-care and place your wellbeing as the highest priority.

But again, these are just the beginning steps. The best thing to do is to seek help from a professional—grief counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist—who will help guide you back to most mentally and emotionally “healthy” place possible.

You don’t have to live with trauma!

Yes, it can have serious effects on your brain, and may even feel like it’ll cause long-term harm. But as you’ve seen above, there are solutions that can help you. Understanding what trauma is, how it impacts your mind, and how it manifests is just the first step. It’s up to you to decide how you’re going to move forward.










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