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What are the three pillars of trauma?

Trauma is defined as any disturbing experience that results in lasting mental and physical effects. Trauma can stem from a single event or repeated exposure to stressful events over time. The impact of trauma varies from person to person and is influenced by many factors. However, most trauma researchers agree that there are three main pillars or components of trauma: events, experiences, and effects.

Traumatic Events

Traumatic events are incidents that threaten injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others. These events also cause horror, terror, or helplessness at the time they occur. Traumatic events can be broken down into two main categories:

  • Acute traumas – Single, time-limited events such as accidents, natural disasters, major injuries or illnesses, or violence.
  • Chronic traumas – Repeated and prolonged exposure to abusive, dangerous, or distressing situations such as domestic violence, child abuse, bullying, poverty, racism, or wartime combat.

Some examples of traumatic events include:

  • Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, etc.
  • Serious accidents such as car, boat, airplane, or industrial accidents
  • Physical or sexual assault such as rape, battery, or domestic violence
  • Childhood trauma like abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction
  • Traumatic grief or loss of a loved one
  • Life-threatening medical events like heart attacks, strokes, cancer, etc.
  • Witnessing violence, injury, or death
  • Military combat or exposure to war zones
  • Terrorism, mass shootings, or other violent crimes

Experiencing or witnessing any of these events can be traumatic because they represent an actual or perceived threat to life, safety, or wellbeing. They overwhelm normal coping mechanisms and evoke intense fear, horror, helplessness, or anxiety at the time of the event.

Subjective Experiences of Trauma

The subjective experiences of trauma refer to the internal thoughts, emotions, and sensations that occur during and after a traumatic event. These subjective experiences are unique to each person and represent the personal imprint left by trauma. Some examples of common subjective experiences during trauma include:

  • Intense fear, anxiety, panic: Feeling terrified for your life or safety or the safety of others.
  • Horror, anger, sadness: Feeling overwhelming emotions in response to traumatic sights, sounds, smells.
  • Helplessness, powerlessness: Feeling like you cannot protect yourself or change the outcome.
  • Disconnection, dissociation: Feeling detached from yourself or reality.
  • Distorted sense of time: Feeling like time is moving very fast or very slowly.
  • Confusion, disorientation: Difficulty processing information or making sense of what is happening.

After the traumatic event ends, common subjective experiences can include:

  • Intrusive memories, flashbacks: Re-experiencing the trauma through unwanted and vivid memories or nightmares.
  • Emotional distress: Extreme anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, grief, despair.
  • Physical distress: Chest pain, stomach pain, headaches, dizziness, muscle tension.
  • Avoidance: Staying away from people, places, thoughts, activities associated with the trauma.
  • Hyperarousal: Feeling jumpy, irritable, constantly on guard, difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
  • Anhedonia: Loss of interest in activities and relationships that used to provide pleasure.

These disturbing intrusive experiences can persist long after the traumatic event and make it difficult for the person to function normally. The subjective experience of trauma is critical because it influences how deeply the trauma becomes rooted in the person’s mind and life.

Effects of Trauma

The effects of trauma refer to the lasting adverse outcomes that can occur when traumatic experiences overwhelm a person’s ability to cope and integrate the memories and emotions connected to the trauma. Trauma can affect multiple areas of functioning:

Physical Effects

  • Chronic health problems like headaches, stomach issues, chronic pain.
  • Neurobiological changes including smaller prefrontal cortex.
  • Increased risk for stress-related illnesses like heart disease.
  • Disruptions in important self-regulatory systems including circadian rhythms.

Cognitive Effects

  • Intrusive memories and flashbacks that interfere with concentration.
  • Negative self-talk and beliefs like “I am worthless.”
  • Trouble learning new information and accessing previously learned information.
  • Dissociation or feeling disconnected from oneself.
  • Reduced awareness of surroundings.

Emotional Effects

  • Difficulty identifying and expressing feelings.
  • Restricted range of emotions.
  • Chronic negative emotional states including fear, anxiety, anger, grief, shame, and sadness.
  • Emotional swings or sudden emotional outbursts.
  • Feelings of detachment, disconnection, or isolation from others.

Behavioral Effects

  • Avoidance of people, places, activities associated with the trauma.
  • Social isolation, loss of interest in relationships.
  • Self-destructive behaviors like self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders.
  • Aggression towards others, trouble controlling anger.
  • Hypervigilance about potential threats in the environment.
  • Difficulty completing tasks, meeting responsibilities.

Interpersonal Effects

  • Difficulty feeling close to others.
  • Detachment and estrangement from family and friends.
  • Impaired communication and conflict resolution skills.
  • Distrust of others, lack of support system.
  • Social isolation or codependent relationships.

These complex effects of trauma demonstrate why trauma can be so destructive to a person’s health, relationships, and quality of life. The effects permeate almost all aspects of functioning.


In summary, the three central pillars of psychological trauma include:

  1. Traumatic events – Actual or perceived experiences that threaten life, safety, or physical integrity.
  2. Subjective experiences during the trauma – Unique thoughts, sensations, emotions, perceptions.
  3. Lasting physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, interpersonal effects.

Understanding these three pillars provides a framework for comprehending trauma in its entirety. The traumatic event activates intense subjective experiences that the person struggles to integrate, resulting in long-term impairments across multiple areas of functioning.

However, with proper support and evidence-based treatment like trauma-focused therapy, the adverse effects of trauma can be healed. The three pillars highlight key areas that need to be addressed in trauma recovery.