What is Emotional and Psychological Trauma?

Often when we think of the word trauma, we think of it as a particular event. A stressful event can cause trauma, but emotional and psychological trauma is the result of a stressful event. We define trauma as the emotional response following an event. Psychological and emotional trauma can leave someone feeling scared, unable to cope, helpless, overwhelmed, numb, and/or disconnected from self and others, and distrustful.

Trauma can be caused by a threat to one’s physical or psychological safety. Sometimes simply witnessing someone else’s harm can also cause emotional and psychological trauma.

The website Help.org says, “It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.”

This is why two people can experience the same event, and one of them can continue with life as usual, and the other can be left to deal with significant trauma.

The document called Engaging Women In Trauma-Informed Peer Support: A Guidebook, (Blanch, Filson, Penney, Cave, 2012) defines trauma this way:

Trauma occurs when an external threat overwhelms a person’s coping resources. It can result in specific signs of psychological or emotional distress, or it can affect many aspects of the person’s life over a period of time. Sometimes people aren’t even aware that the challenges they face are related to trauma that occurred earlier in life. Trauma is unique to each individual—the most violent events are not always the events that have the deepest impact. Trauma can happen to anyone, but some groups are particularly vulnerable due to their circumstances, including women and children, people with disabilities, and people who are homeless or living in institutions. (April 2012)

Types of Trauma

Before we dig into this section, it’s important to mention that as a peer support worker you will not be providing clinical treatment, or therapy. We are only sharing this information with you so that you can understand how trauma affects the body, and why it is so important to be intentional about not triggering someone’s past trauma.

The following are the three ways trauma is typically categorized:

  • Acute: Results from a single overwhelming event. (This could be a car accident, single act of abuse, natural disaster, sudden major loss, or witnessing violence.)
  • Chronic: Results from events that happen repeatedly, for prolonged periods of time. Can be the same event or different events. (This could include domestic violence, the effects of poverty, neglect, bullying, ongoing treatment needed for an illness such as cancer.)
  • Complex: Similar to chronic trauma, complex trauma results from events that happen repeatedly for longer periods of time. The difference is that these events were perpetrated by a trusted caregiver, so there is a sense of betrayal. Complex trauma often originates in childhood.

A note about complex trauma: Complex trauma often impacts a person’s sense of worth, can lead to deep feelings of shame and distrust as well as symptoms including disassociation. These can occur with acute and chronic trauma as well, but are more common with complex trauma. This can make it hard to address or work through issues. Again, as a peer support worker, treatment will not be something you work on with people. Know that if someone you are supporting has complex trauma, your connection and support can be really important to their  well-being.

Outside of these three categories, there are several other types of trauma that people can encounter:


Dictionary.com defines microaggression this way:

  1. a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a member of a marginalized group, especially a racial minority, that is often unintentionally offensive or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype:
    microaggressions such as “I don’t see you as Black.”
  2. the act of discriminating against a marginalized group by means of such comments or actions:
    The diversity committee discussed the issue of microaggression toward women on campus.

Though microaggressions are subtle, when they happen often the impact is cumulative, and can cause trauma in an individual.

Small words can wield great power to cause harm.

The journal article Challenging Definitions of Psychological Trauma: Connecting Racial Microaggressions and Traumatic Stress, (Nadal, Erazo, King, 2019) highlights the importance of  mental health professionals taking the impact of microaggressions seriously. The article states that the effects of racism create trauma, and professionals should use culturally-informed, trauma-focused supports to “normalize and empower people of colour.”

They state, “By not naming racism or other forms of oppression as a legitimate type of trauma, people of color (and others) continue to internalize that they are not coping with discrimination effectively, instead of externalizing the role of historical and systemic oppression in their lives.”

The following is from the study:

Future researchers can further examine racial trauma and microaggressive trauma as concepts that negatively impact the lives of people of color and prohibit their ability to thrive in all aspects of their lives. Researchers can examine if microaggressions can perhaps trigger past experiences of racial trauma similar to retraumatizations. Scholars have found retraumatization to be detrimental to psychological health (see Duckworth & Follette, 2012), while others have supported that accumulative or complex trauma and revictimization often results in greater symptomology (Courtois, 2008). So, while racial microaggressions may appear innocuous or harmless, they may trigger memories of intensity or frequent racial discrimination, which may exacerbate trauma symptoms. (2019)


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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