Trauma and the Impact on Mental Health

January 15, 2023

BY Jacqueline Moen-Kadlec

The definition of trauma, from the Merriam Webster dictionary, is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” or a “physical injury.”  The very definition of trauma itself indicates the seriousness of the impact of traumatic experiences.  And while traumatic experiences that impact mental health may be dismissed by many people, traumatic experiences CAN have an impact on not only the daily lives of people who have a traumatic experience, but specifically their mental health and wellbeing.

While there are many different categories of traumatic experiences, this blog will address five different types:  acute, chronic, complex, historical (intergenerational) and ambiguous trauma.  Acute trauma is defined as a single, isolated, traumatic event.  This could be an experience like having a car accident, being involved in a natural disaster, sexual assault, breaking a bone, or losing a loved one.  Many people who experience acute trauma may experience anxiety or panic attacks, difficulty with focusing, feeling confused, changes in daily hygiene or sleep habits.  And while many people who experience an event that can be described as acute trauma may NOT experience long-term symptoms, an acute trauma event may impact some people for years and result in long-term impairment to everyday functioning and well-being.

Chronic trauma is defined as experiencing similar traumatic events repeatedly.  Examples of chronic trauma experiences may include abusive relationships, combat experiences, chronic illnesses, or childhood abuse.  Since chronic trauma experiences occur for longer periods of time, people who experience chronic trauma do not get to process their experiences as they often go from one traumatic event to the next.  With chronic trauma, people may experience unexplainable behavioral challenges, such as a child who has experienced chronic abuse being triggered into explosive behavior by a scent or even the tone of another person’s voice.  Adults who have experienced chronic trauma may exhibit poor coping skills that soothe themselves when they are triggered, such as binge drinking, drug use, overeating or smoking.


Complex (or compounding) trauma is best described as the exposure to multiple, often interrelated, experiences that are often inflicted upon them by others and the difficulties that arise as a result of adapting to or surviving these events.  For example, a person may experience severe and persistent abuse as a child and witness the death of a loved one.  As an adult, the teenager, the person may start to turn to drugs or alcohol in order to cope with what they have experienced.  As their addiction progresses into adulthood, they may experience unemployment, sexual assault or homelessness, which are further traumas, may lead to further mental health-related diagnoses.  Complex trauma is often difficult to treat, as there are so many layers to the traumatic experiences.

Historical (or intergenerational) trauma is complex trauma that is inflicted on a group of people who share an identity or affiliation, such as ethnicity, nationality, and/or religious affiliation.  Examples of historical trauma would be the Holocaust or cultural genocide experienced by Native American people who were taken from their parents at early ages and sent to government-run boarding schools.  Historical trauma is passed down from one generation to the next, with implications not only to the descendant’s mental health but also their physical health.  Recent studies have shown that descendants of Holocaust survivors produce less cortisol and have low levels of an enzyme that break down cortisol, which may have been impacted by the effects of starvation inflicted upon their ancestors during their time in concentration camps.  The impact of historical trauma on impacted groups is often overlooked.

Last, but certainly not least, is ambiguous trauma, which is defined as a trauma that results in a loss where there is no answer that can resolve the loss and no timeframe on the trauma ending.  One of the biggest examples of ambiguous trauma has been what we, collectively, have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.  For those of us who were sent home to work remotely during the beginning stages of the pandemic in March of 2020, it was believed by many that we would be returning to our offices in a month and the pandemic would end.  However, as we all know, this was not the case.  Collectively, as a society, we experienced the uncertainty of how to best protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting COVID-19 by limiting contact or worrying about how it would impact a loved one with underlying health conditions if we did have contact.  As parents, we faced how we could educate our children in a virtual setting, while also trying to figure out how to support our families, with many of us having to learn how to work in a remote setting as well and all the fun technology that came along with it.  The pandemic limited our ability to celebrate important milestones together, like graduations and weddings, and impacted our ability to grieve as we were not able to gather for funerals. And through it all, the question has been, “When is this going to end and WHEN are we going to get back to normal?” 

Woah.  This is some heavy stuff, right?

The good news is this:  trauma can be addressed.  The symptoms you are currently experiencing, such as panic attacks, anxiety, depression, or even somatic (body) symptoms can all be addressed.  Trauma work is NOT easy work, to say the least, but if you are ready to seek help to address your traumatic experiences, Arrow Behavioral Health Services, LLC has clinicians who are ready to help you to begin to address whatever type of trauma you have experienced!   If you are ready to move forward and work towards living your best, healthy, life, please reach out to us for more information.

Your partner in well-being,

The Arrow Behavioral Health Services team