Most people associate trauma with terribly difficult and disturbing events like war or a natural disaster. Because of this, you may think you have never experienced something traumatic. However, any distressing event that falls beyond your normal scope of human experience can be considered traumatic! Odds are high that you HAVE experienced trauma. How have you dealt with it?
I was recently talking with a friend who told me she had never been through anything traumatic in her life. Although I knew she was referring to the fact that she had not experienced a death of a loved one, abuse, an accident, or something of like nature, I silently disagreed with her. While those experiences are incredibly traumatic for any individual who faces them, trauma is not limited to life-changing events like those. Trauma can happen every day in the normal course of your day without you realizing what you are up against. In this post, I will focus on the two different types of trauma and how we are all affected by trauma’s expansive reach.
Let’s start by defining trauma. What is it really? At its Greek core, trauma means to wound or to pierce. A search for this word will yield a definition much like this: “A disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset, an agent, force or mechanism that causes high distress.” Basically, trauma is intense emotional distress resulting from stressful life experiences. Oftentimes when describing trauma, it is divided into two major categories: Big “T” and little “t” traumas.
Big “T” trauma
Big “T” trauma, or complex traumas, are events that involve physical harm and/or a threat to life or physical safety. Big “T” trauma is trauma in its most severe form, and can often result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Examples of big “T” trauma include being in a combat/war zone, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, immigration, rape, sexual assault, abuse, death, sickness, moving, financial stress, a car/plane accident, etc. These are extraordinary and significant events that leave us feeling powerless, helpless, and as if we have little or no control in our environment. This element of helplessness is a key difference between of big ‘T’ traumas and little ‘t’ traumas–feelings of helplessness being much greater in big ‘T’ traumas. These events can forever alter a person’s life, and may influence our ability to make/maintain relationships, and function later in life. One big ‘T’ trauma can be enough to cause severe distress and interfere with our daily functioning–which is intensified the longer treatment is avoided.
Little “t” trauma
Little “t” traumas are life events that are more common experiences that, although upsetting to an individual, are less severe or dramatic than big “T” traumas. A few examples of little “t” traumas include being teased in elementary school, always being picked last for a team, divorce, death of a beloved pet, losing a job, or losing friends by moving from school to school during childhood. It is not necessarily the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event. If an individual experiences an event as life-altering or upsetting in such a way that it changes the way they think about themselves or others, it is likely a little “t” trauma.
The term little “t” trauma does not imply, however, that the emotional impact of such an event is insignificant compared to big “T” traumas. The emotional wounds can be as lasting and severe as big “T” trauma wounds!
Everyone has endured some sort of trauma in their lifetime. Both big “T” and little “t” traumas have a strong influence on our view of the world and shape how we cope in life. For example, the little “t” traumas of being teased by peers and being picked last for the team can leave us feeling inadequate or insecure amongst our peers. Big “T” traumas may leave us orphaned, severely dissociated, or less physically capable than we may have previously been. The four core signs of trauma include the following:
- Hyperarousal: These symptoms can be difficult to manage and can vary from person to person. In general, hyperarousal includes having a difficult time falling or staying asleep, feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger, having difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance (constantly being on guard), and being jumpy or easily startled
- Dissociation of body and mind: This includes feeling disconnected from oneself, problems handling intense emotions, sudden/unexpected shifts in mood, depression or anxiety problems, derealization (feeling as though the world is distorted or not real), memory problems, concentration problems, and significant memory lapses.
- Constriction of body and perceptions: Which may include the skewed notion that the individual was responsible for causing the trauma.
- Feelings of helplessness: The inability to act or think for oneself, or to act effectively.
When symptoms of trauma continue for more than three months, it is considered PTSD or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Fortunately, all symptoms are not permanent if addressed properly–which means that healing for both little “t” traumas as well as big “T” traumas are completely treatable. Receiving treatment can truly reshape the way we view both the world and ourselves!
Trauma is treatable
Treatment for trauma consists of specialized counseling techniques and practices that will help you cope and deal with trauma and its effects on your life. I use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) , as well as Pia Mellody’s inner child framework to treat trauma. Because trauma contributes to negative thinking, negative behaviors, and difficult emotions, counseling for trauma can help you change your thinking and behaviors, which will, in turn, impact your mood. Counseling with me is a safe place where you can explore some very difficult issues that are hindering you from the life you want to live or the person you wish to be. If you think you may struggle with trauma, please reach out to me! Untreated trauma can lead to serious life consequences, the longer it is left untreated.
As always, the take away that I want you to remember (and cling to) is that treatment is available. Healing is possible! No matter where you have been, I can help you get relief from your trauma symptoms. Remember that everyone responds to traumatic situations differently; you may be experiencing only a few of the aforementioned symptoms, or you may be experiencing many. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his/her specific trauma event. What may affect one person may not affect another person in the same way. Counseling can help you explore your trauma and find the healing you may still need. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have. I look forward to working with you!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
- Better Health Channel: “Dissociation and dissociative disorders”
- Cluff Counseling: “Are You are Secondary Survivor?”
- Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
- Cluff Counseling: “Life After Trauma”
- Cluff Counseling: “Reliving the Horrors: PTSD”
- Cluff Counseling: “Trauma Overview”
- Cluff Counseling: “What You Need to Know About Trauma”
- Cluff Counseling: “When the One You Love Most Hurts You: What to Do”
- Good Therapy: “Big T and Little t Trauma and How Your Body Reacts to It”
- Journey Pure: “Big “T” and Little “t” trauma”
- Levine, P.A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic.
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). “Trauma”
- Psychology Today: “Different Types of Trauma: Small ‘t’ versus Large ‘T’”
- Very Well Mind: “How to Cope With Hyperarousal Symptoms in PTSD”