BONUS BLOG: The six types of trauma

This post contains discussions about mental health that may be upsetting or triggering for trauma survivors. If you are at risk for serious depression, anxiety, emotional instability, or self-harm, consider reading this post in the company of a trusted, trauma-informed supporter.

A search for “trauma” online results in hundreds of definitions of trauma. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” This definition feels woefully inadequate to me.

I prefer the definition provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): “Individual trauma [is] an event or circumstance resulting in physical harm, emotional harm, and/or life-threatening harm. The event or circumstance has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s mental, physical, and emotion health, social well-being, and/or spiritual well-being.”

Redefining Trauma

By now you know that I am a words person. If I encounter a definition of a word that doesn’t serve its purpose, I dig deep into that word, and redefine it in a way that feels safer that more accurately reflects a healthy sense of self and the world. Just as I redefined love to allow for boundaries and big, hard feelings, so too did I redefine trauma. 

There are countless definitions online. But in my experience, none of them fully address the experience of trauma.

Within the Redefining Love framework, trauma is defined as the brain’s response to adverse experiences that create a lack of or a corruption of basic human needs or instincts.

In Redefining Love, the emphasis is less on the event or experience, and more on the brain’s response to the event or experience. It is useful to know what the experience is only insofar as it relates to how the brain has processed and stored it. It is only when we understand how our brain has responded to the experience that we are able to begin the healing process.

Trauma and the brain.

Have you ever wondered why two people can experience the same event, and one has a trauma response and the other does not? This occurs because although they had the same experience, they don’t have the same brain. Each individual is unique, and therefore responds differently.

The reason trauma is so deeply damaging is because it denies us our basic human needs, or corrupts our brain’s natural instincts. When this happens, our brain gets muddled, similar to how a robot would blink out if you went inside and starting moving wires around. Trauma prohibits us from functioning as our system was designed to function.

Every type of trauma relates to a lack of or corruption of one of the following:

  • Nourishment (food and water)
  • Physical safety (avoid pain and stay alive)
  • Clothing to protect us from the elements
  • Shelter
  • Personal autonomy (free will)
  • Sexuality (instinctual procreation and human connection)
  • Community membership
  • Spirituality (connection with the energy of the universe)

When any of these basic needs or instincts are withheld or corrupted, our brain no longer functions as it was designed. Let’s explore the six types of trauma that impact the human brain. Keep in mind that there is often a lot of overlap between these traumas. Usually, when one type of trauma is present, there’s very likely more.

Physical trauma

This is the type that comes to mind most readily when we think about trauma. It covers a wide range of experiences, including physical child abuse, relationship violence, random violence, war violence, natural disasters, and accidents (such as a car wreck).

It’s important to understand that injury is not required for a person to experience physical trauma. Even the fear or risk of physical injury or death can create a trauma response in the brain. When we experience physical trauma, the basic needs for physical safety and personal autonomy are not met.


Neglect often overlaps other types of trauma. But it deserves its own category because of the basic needs that are unmet when neglect exists. When we are denied proper nourishment, clothing, and shelter, our brains go into high alert. Even when no other type of trauma is present, a lack in these very basic human needs is more than enough to cross wires in the brain.

Another aspect of neglect that often gets overlooked is emotional neglect. A child might receive all the material items needed for healthy brain development, but if they do not make proper bonds with a caregiver, the part of their brain that relies on community membership does not develop healthy connections. In its most extreme form, emotional neglect leads to failure to thrive syndrome, a debilitating condition that occurs in babies and young children in the absence of positive bonds with a caregiver.

Emotional trauma

This insidious form of trauma occurs when our needs for personal autonomy and community membership are not met. Emotional trauma is all about power. An emotional abuser uses a myriad of toxic behaviors to gain control over others. It is often a gateway trauma to other forms of abuse, particularly physical, spiritual, and sexual, and it is typically also found in cases of emotional neglect.

Let’s discuss more deeply what is meant by the term community membership. This does not refer to joining a club or organization, or hosting an annual block party (although that would be fun!). In this context, community membership describes our primal dependence on a group for survival.

Humans were designed for community. We travel in packs, like wolves, versus alone, like tigers. Emotional trauma often triggers our brain to develop an unhealthy level of distrust towards others, which is contrary to how we were meant to thrive.

Financial trauma

At first glance, it might seem like money has nothing to do with our basic needs. But because money has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years, the human brain has evolved to equate money with meeting our basic needs.

This one might be hard to understand if you’ve never experienced deep poverty, or even the threat of deep poverty. But anyone who has experienced a lack of money knows that this is a very real thing. Needs that aren’t met when someone experiences financial trauma include nourishment, clothing, shelter, and personal autonomy. There’s nothing quite comparable to the demoralization of public assistance and welfare programs.

Sexual trauma

Traumas in this category include rape and sexual assault, child molestation, incest, pornography, and sex trafficking. Another type of sexual abuse is what is commonly known as “purity culture,” which is an overemphasis on sexuality over other biological and psychological needs that robs the abused of personal autonomy and creates a culture of objectification.

Of all the types of abuse, this is the most damaging to the human brain. Both our nervous systems and our limbic systems are hardwired for sex. Our bodies are designed to respond to certain touches in very specific ways. When these body systems are violated, our brain begins to distrust our signals of sexual desire. What should be a very natural experience becomes laden with fear, anger, and shame.

Spiritual trauma

Spiritual trauma occurs when individuals or institutions use religion to justify abusive and controlling behaviors. Because the abuse is done in the name of a higher power, the abused develop a warped, toxic sense of spirituality and their own sense of identity. Spiritual trauma denies the abused personal autonomy and healthy community relationships. Often (but not always), when you find spiritual trauma, sexual trauma is also present.  

Like emotional trauma, spiritual trauma is very insidious. It is often perpetrated by people who are leaders and authorities in their homes, religious institutions, and communities. It is also commonly supported by the target’s culture, which makes it that much harder to identify and escape from.

Typically, families that are spiritually abusive worship, socialize, and do business with others within their religious communities. Often, in such instances, when spiritual abuse is reported, those in power show more concern for protecting the abuser than they do supporting the abused.

Across all types of trauma, abusers have an uncanny way of finding others who are like them. This is particularly dangerous when it comes to spiritual abuse, because the abuser’s “cohorts” reinforce similar toxic behaviors through all layers of the community, creating a sense in the abused that “this is just the way it is.” Like in all types of abuse, there is a deep culture of secrets and isolation that perpetuates a sense of hopelessness in trauma survivors.

Get help!

Fortunately, we are living in the most trauma-informed age in human history. There is support available for every type of trauma. Organizations exist to help you escape abuse and overcome trauma, so you can begin a new, healthier life.

If you need help, please reach out. If I can’t help resolve your trauma, I can help you find someone who can. You don’t have to live with lifelong trauma!

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