What are the Top Causes of Emotional Trauma?

emotional trauma Sep 22, 2022

By Sarah Martin, LCPC, NCC

Trauma is everywhere, and with everything going on in the world today, we cannot ignore its presence. No one is immune to the impact of trauma. So what exactly do we mean when we say the word trauma? I often refer to Bessel van der Kolk’s definition of trauma as “an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories.” What I like about this definition is that it opens the door to so many experiences, big and small. As an EMDR therapist, I have found that the small events or “little t” traumas can often be the most pervasive and deeply emotional. 

Emotional trauma can be caused by any event or experience that disrupts our sense of safety and security, often leaving us feeling helpless. The top causes of emotional trauma are verbal or emotional abuse, physical or sexual abuse, childhood neglect, spiritual or religious abuse, an accident or natural disaster, witnessing domestic abuse or violence, or witnessing bodily harm or death.

Verbal or Emotional Abuse

You know that saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”


Words can cause a lot of emotional pain. I cannot tell you the number of times I have talked to people with so much shame surrounding verbal or emotional abuse because there is no “evidence” of the damage, no physical wound. I see these causing people to minimize their feelings about what happened: a parent telling their child they will never be good enough. A boss is bullying their employee. A partner yelling and name calling. Racism. 

Physical or Sexual Abuse

The CDC reports that about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the U.S. experience sexual abuse, and those numbers are just what is reported. 91% of child sexual abuse comes from someone the child knows and trusts. Talk about a violation of a sense of safety and security. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, or intimate partner stalking.  

Childhood Neglect

As infants, we are hardwired to attach and need to attach to our caregivers for survival. When your caregiver is your source of comfort and your source of pain, the overwhelm is too much to handle. Dissociation is the brain’s greatest survival tool under these circumstances. Neglect can be unmet physical needs such as the caregiver not providing enough food or adequate hygiene. Neglect can also be unmet emotional needs, such as a parent not soothing or comforting their child when they are distressed. 

Spiritual or Religious Abuse 

Humans have a natural need to belong, so it can be devastating when the spiritual or religious community you belong to or once belonged to made you feel shame, guilt, or condemned. Spiritual or religious trauma is particularly rampant amongst those in the LGBTQ+ community who have been ostracized or dehumanized for their sexual identity. 

Accident or Natural Disaster

Common examples include a car accident, unexpected injury, fire, earthquake, flood, or tornado. An unexpected event that left you feeling helpless. 

Witnessing Domestic Abuse or Violence 

Witnessing a traumatic event can be just as emotionally damaging as experiencing it yourself. Witnessing fighting amongst caregivers, a shooting, and violence in the community are all examples.

Witnessing Bodily Harm or Death

This has become more common since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many doctors and nurses have watched people die as a result of COVID-19. First responders are frequently exposed to emotional trauma as a result of their jobs. The Substance Abuse Administration and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that approximately 1 in 3 first responders will develop PTSD. 

Emotional trauma often has roots that occurred much earlier in life. There are so many events that can be traumatic, and as a therapist, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to begin to help your clients heal. I’ve been there, and I highly recommend getting trained in EMDR. EMDR is one of the most effective treatment modalities for the treatment of trauma, and it has helped me immensely as a therapist. And for EMDR therapists, don’t forget to do a float back with your clients! 

If you are curious about adding EMDR to your therapy tool belt, Trauma Specialists Training Institute would love to have a conversation with you. Get in touch, and check out our upcoming events and classes. We would love to help you lead your patients toward healing.

 Sign up for our Basic Training today and become a member of the EMDR Circle!


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