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Acute vs. Chronic Trauma and How it Can Play into Your Mental Wellness

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June is National Post Traumatic Stress Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising public awareness about issues related to PTSD and reducing the stigma associated with PTSD. PTSD is often associated with war soldiers and veterans. Although many men and women in combat are at risk of PTSD, this mental health disorder can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or military status. PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of adults in the United States annually, and an estimated one in 11 individuals will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD.

“When we feel weak, we drop our heads on the shoulders of others. Don’t get mad when someone does that. Be honored. For that person trusted you enough to, even if subtly, ask you for help.”

― Lori Goodwin

Defining trauma

Trauma is the emotional and mental response to a terrible or life-threatening event. Types of trauma include the following:

  • Bullying
  • Intimate partner violence (emotional, verbal, or physical)
  • Natural disasters (fires, floods, hurricanes, etc.)
  • Early childhood trauma (0-6 years of age)
  • Community violence
  • Physical abuse
  • Traumatic grief
  • Sex trafficking
  • Terrorism and violence

The emotional response to trauma may include denial, shock, anger, and fear. These emotional responses can also affect an individual’s memory, concentration, sleep patterns, daily routines, and appetite.

Acute and chronic trauma are categorized according to the type of event individual experiences. For example, an isolated incident such as a house fire is considered acute trauma, but continuing events such as ongoing domestic abuse are regarded as chronic trauma. In addition, mental health experts often use the term “trauma spectrum,” a continuum of traumatic events and the responses to these events. Each event is processed differently by each individual, and not everyone will have the same reaction to a traumatic event. For example, some individuals who are sexually abused may develop acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or have minimal long-term emotional and mental effects on a clinical level.

Acute trauma

Acute trauma refers to a single, isolated traumatic event such as rape, physical assault, motor vehicle accident, medical emergency, natural disaster, terrorist attack, or mass shooting. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, acute trauma is often connected with short-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Acute trauma does not have as many potential severe and long-lasting symptoms and complications. However, this is a general rule of thumb, as everyone processes their trauma differently.

Chronic trauma

Chronic trauma refers to repeated, ongoing traumatic events. There is ample research on chronic trauma and its relationship to adverse long-term effects, unlike acute trauma. Examples of chronic trauma include continuing domestic abuse, bullying, chronic medical illness with invasive medical procedures, homelessness, neglect, starvation or deprivation, ongoing war or combat, and witnessing constant abuse of a partner or family member. Chronic trauma is known to have serious long-term consequences that affect an individual’s mental and emotional health and potentially even their physical health. Research has shown that children exposed to chronic trauma have an increased likelihood of experiencing poor academic performance, developing a mental health disorder, and getting in trouble with the law as a juvenile. Mothers exposed to chronic trauma have an increased likelihood of developing brain changes associated with how they process empathy and generational trauma.

Here is the link to read about intergenerational trauma, a form of chronic trauma.

Symptoms of Trauma

Both acute and chronic trauma symptoms can vary drastically between individuals, especially between adults and adolescents. The following are symptoms associated with trauma (both acute and chronic):

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of hope
  • Difficulty regulating and controlling emotions
  • Intrusive memories
  • Flashbacks
  • Avoidance of emotions, memories, and anything associated with the trauma
  • Misusing drugs, alcohol, or food as unhealthy coping mechanisms
  • Changes in appetites and weight
  • Changes in sleep patterns, insomnia, fatigue
  • Nightmares
  • Frequent crying or emotional outbursts
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal side effects (stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Panic attacks
  • Being easily startled

Trauma symptoms (acute and chronic) in children and teenagers:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Academic decline
  • Truancy
  • Reverting to past behaviors (bedwetting, tantrums, thumb sucking)
  • Loss of interest in previously loved hobbies
  • Clinginess to parents, teachers, or caregivers
  • Acting out the traumatic event during playtime
  • Nightmares and difficulty sleeping

PTSD and its relation to trauma

Trauma is often associated with PTSD. However, contrary to what the media and the general public portray, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is found in only 3% of individuals who experience trauma. With that said, PTSD is a severe mental health disorder under the subtopic of trauma-related disorders and is diagnosed in individuals who undergo trauma and develop specific symptoms lasting for at least one month. Acute stress disorder is a trauma-related mental health disorder with the same symptoms as PTSD, but they resolve within one month. Treatment for PTSD and trauma-related disorders include a wide array of options, including psychotherapy approaches and medications.

Seeking treatment for chronic and acute trauma

The step in helping someone with trauma is placing them in a safe and calm environment where their physical, mental, and emotional needs can be met. This means removing them from the traumatic environment and providing them shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention (if needed). Once the individual is placed in a safe and calm atmosphere, the necessary mental health treatment approaches can begin. These often include a combination of psychotherapy and medications. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common psychotherapy approach used to help individuals who have experienced acute or chronic trauma. Seeking cognitive behavioral therapy from a licensed therapist is necessary if the trauma event and associated symptoms begin to interfere with your daily functioning and day-to-day activities. Medications are often used to help relieve traumatic event symptoms and treat any underlying co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety.

Lifestyle changes for trauma are also significant. These include adopting a healthy physical exercise routine, eating balanced and nutritious meals, adopting a regular and healthy sleep routine, spending time with supportive loved ones, meditating, journaling, and developing creative outlets.

Seeking help at AKUA Mind and Body

AKUA Mind and Body is a full-service addiction and mental health treatment center with multiple locations across California. We believe in treating the individual and not just the disorder. We have a team of mental health experts who have experience treating trauma and trauma-related disorders and any underlying co-occurring disorders. No matter the range or severity of symptoms ​​or the type of traumatic event you experienced, your experience is valid. Our AKUA Mind and Body team wants to help you navigate this challenging journey and seek a healthy and successful recovery.

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