Condition Menu

What is Emotional Trauma?

Throughout life, many of us experience traumatic events, or ongoing events, that involve relational trauma, death, serious injury or sexual violence. These events can either be threatened or physically experienced. They are, by nature, emotionally overwhelming or shocking.

Emotional trauma can occur during a traumatic event, but its effects can continue for a long time after one has experienced trauma. These emotions can include sadness, anger, fear, shame and stress, all of which can feel overwhelming.

Two young women lay in the grass

Types of Emotional Trauma

There are multiple triggers of emotional trauma. Examples include:

  • Abuse (emotional or physical)
  • Rape and sexual assault
  • Traumatic invalidation or bullying
  • Hurricanes and other natural disasters
  • Gun violence, car accidents and terror attacks
  • Military combat
  • Racial trauma

Traumatic events may cause debilitating symptoms that are short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Individuals who develop long-lasting, chronic symptoms may be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Acute Trauma

People who are diagnosed with acute trauma have likely experienced one traumatic event in their lifetime. This can include witnessing one violent event or experiencing a stressful situation, such as a car accident [1].


Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma can especially be found in children who have consistently witnessed violence in the home, were abused on more than one occasion or were mistreated as a child [1].

Complex Trauma

Those who experience complex trauma have likely been exposed to numerous traumatic events throughout their lives [2]. Experience of these traumatic events can start in childhood and continue into adulthood. An example is being exposed to domestic violence as a child and witnessing a natural disaster later in life. Complex trauma may include PTSD.


For those who have experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime, they can experience lasting effects. These lasting effects can be categorized as a trauma-related disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder and reactive attachment disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Someone who is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, has likely experienced a violent or severely stressful event. PTSD can last for years if untreated and can cause symptoms including — but not limited to — flashbacks, anxiety, trouble sleeping, mood swings, anger and irritability, concentration problems, dissociation and hypervigilance [3].


Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

Acute stress disorder is most frequently diagnosed in someone who has experienced a recent traumatic event. One may be experiencing loss of sleep, anxiety, and emotional distress for a short amount of time. If symptoms occur for a longer period, the patient could be diagnosed with PTSD.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

Many children who have been neglected or abused can experience reactive attachment disorder. This includes children who have been in foster care, have been separated from their parents or witness emotional distress in their caretakers [4].


Symptoms of Emotional Trauma Disorders

People who experience a trauma-related mental health condition can exhibit many different symptoms. These symptoms vary based on age, in addition to the type of traumatic event the patient experienced. Symptoms of an emotional trauma disorder may include anxiety, depression, agitation, prolonged fear, trouble sleeping and acting out, poor concentration, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, persistence avoidance, intrusive thoughts and memories, and negative self-talk/cognitions.

Learn more about the symptoms of an emotional trauma disorder.

Risk Factors for Trauma Disorders

Determining the risk factors for trauma disorders depends on each patient, although most risk factors are psychologically and environmentally based. Knowing the risk factors can help patients find the right care and experience lasting healing.

Childhood Environment

For children who experience symptoms of an emotional trauma disorder, their living environment can be a leading risk factor. This can include a stressful or physically dangerous environment or mistreatment in the home. Adults with PTSD may also experience symptoms related to their environment during childhood and adolescence.

Prior Trauma

If someone experiences PTSD, prior traumas can be a major risk factor for continued distress. For example, if a patient experienced trauma as a child and experiences another traumatic event in adulthood, the risk factor for PTSD may be increased [5].


Pre-existing Conditions

Another risk factor for someone with PTSD or emotional trauma is a pre-existing condition. Patients who have been diagnosed with a personality disorder, depression, anxiety or a psychological disorder may have increased PTSD symptoms [5].

Additional risk factors include lack of support, increased number of stressful life events (i.e., divorce, loss, new job, family changes, etc.), access to resources including financial support and housing, and race / ethnicity.

Find Help for Emotional Trauma Disorders

If you or a loved one experiences symptoms of an emotional trauma disorder, we want you to know that there is hope. You are not alone, and we are here to offer resources and treatment options that can help you find lasting healing.

Learn more about Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center’s treatment programs

Emotional Trauma Quiz