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One of the things that I was quite confused about earlier on in my journey as a therapist were the different terms to describe trauma. So, I have put together a quick cheat sheet outlining the key trauma definitions which you may find useful!

Definition of Trauma

SAMHSA (2014), defines trauma as events or circumstances that are experienced as harmful or life threatening and that have lasting impact on mental, physical, emotional and or social wellbeing. Trauma can be experienced as both a single or multiple events.

Trauma can be further categorised into the following definitions:

Acute Trauma: A single overwhelming event or experience (a car accident, natural disaster, single event of abuse or assault, sudden loss or witnessing violence).

Big-T Trauma: is the result of major traumatic events. Examples include war, rape, concentrations camps.

Chronic Trauma: the result of repeated or prolonged exposure to trauma, for example, ongoing domestic violence, neglect, human trafficking or receiving regular treatment for an illness.

Complex Trauma: the result of multiple, prolonged overwhelming traumatic events and experiences. The key difference between chronic and complex trauma is that it happens within the context of an interpersonal relationship, in which the individual has little or no chance of escape. Examples include severe child abuse, domestic violence or multiple military deployments into dangerous locations.

Developmental Trauma: the result of early onset or exposure to ongoing or repetitive trauma, for example, neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, physical abuse or assault, emotional abuse or assault. This often occurs within the child’s caregiving system and interferes with development and healthy attachment.  Developmental traumas are also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). 

Complex Developmental Trauma is a term used to describe chronic abuse or neglect in a child’s important early developmental period, which occurs within the context of the child’s caregiving system.

 Organisational Trauma/Organisational Stress: Organisational trauma is a collective experience that overwhelms an organisation’s defensive and protective structures and leaves the entity temporarily vulnerable and helpless or permanently damaged.

 Insidious Trauma/Micro-Trauma: the result of tiny, barely noticeable traumatic occurrences that build up over time.

Historical/Intergenerational Trauma: Psychological and emotional trauma that can affect communities, cultural groups or generations. Examples include slavery, racism and genocide. Patterns of coping can be passed down through generations.

Small-t Trauma: is the result of overwhelming experiences that may not necessarily be regarded as traumatic. These can be overlooked at times by the person experiencing the trauma, and often have an accumulated effect, which means that they build up over time, causing a significant distress. Examples include divorce, legal trouble, financial worries.

Vicarious Trauma: is also known as indirect trauma, compassionate fatigue or secondary trauma is the result of caring for others through empathetic engagement. For example, therapists working with trauma survivors may experience this as they hear trauma stories and witness the client’s pain, fear and terror.