Trauma: the big T and the little t

At the beginning of therapy I often ask individuals about their trauma history. Some people are very clear about what it is they have experienced and know it has been a trauma; be it child abuse, domestic abuse, terrorism/war or rape. However, many others say "No, no traumatic events" in a heartbeat. My thought is that  the terminology is most frequently used about BIG deals, so people assume trauma means something really really big or bad.  
Trauma can be defined as any event that causes an unusually high level of emotional stress and has a long lasting negative effect on a person. However, it is your subjective emotional experience of an event that determines whether it was traumatic, not the objective facts of the event itself. In short, any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope as you normally would can be traumatizing, regardless of whether physical harm was involved. 

Meaning; one person can experience an event and be able to bounce back and another individual can have lasting effects of the same or very similar experience. There are a few components at play here. First, its never "just" something that happened. Say someone was badly hurt or abused but they had nurturing parents or a trusting adult to turn to, their ability to heal and move through the pain is significantly better than one who has no one to turn to. As Bessel Van Der Kolk says, "It's not only what happened (trauma), it's also what didn't happen" (adequate nurturing, attuned parents, consistency, stability). 

This brings up an important factor about trauma that often needs explaining. Trauma can be broken down into two categories of life events: "small t" and "Big T" traumas. 
Big T traumas are those Big deals that were mentioned above; rape, war, abuse-all that involve physical harm and/or a threat to life or physical safety. Many times Big T trauma is trauma, when left untreated lead to symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

The "Small T" traumas  are events or life experiences that  are more common experiences, and although upsetting, seem, on the surface, to be less traumatizing.  It is important to note, though, that the  term "small t trauma" does not imply that  emotional impact of such experiences are insignificant or leave little impact compared to Big T traumas. To the individual experiencing it, no small t trauma feels small. What most find shocking is that often the emotional wounds may last as long  as those from Big T trauma. 

In regard to trauma, there are "big T Traumas" and "little t traumas. Big "T" traumas refer to experiencing a highly distressing event such as war, an accident, near death experience, sexual, physical abuse or rape. Small "t" traumas relate to experiences that overwhelm the mind and body, they may seem less dramatic, yet cause feelings of intense distress. Emotionally neglect, loss, feeling isolated, being in an emotionally unhealthy relationship, feeling chronically inadequate, or having a life with chronic stress causes a perpetual feeling of overwhelm, leaving your memory layered with "tough" memories. When you don't have adequate supports to make sense of and let go of the stress, they get stuck in your mind and body, expressing themselves in the reliving of memory,  often with irritability and a lack of internal ease. 

Since we're all human, we have all been through some kind of  small t trauma in life. It may have been being bulled, feeling feeling left out, having parents that weren't attuned, experiencing social anxiety, living with someone with anger/extreme moodiness. death, moving, or divorce. You may also endure a "small t" trauma if you've lost a job, have been  rejected from a chosen school or university,  or have lost friends due to a  falling-out or life changes such as moving or difference in developmental phase.

These traumas have a strong influence on your view of the world, how you see yourself  and shape how you cope in life. For example, the small t traumas of being teased by peers or not getting enough love, leave you with low self-esteem and the belief that you are not good enough - despite the fact that you may see no connection between the two. Fortunately though, small t traumas are just as treatable in therapy as Big T traumas and can reshape the way you view the world, and yourself in it. 

"Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear" is something we are used to seeing printed on car side mirrors. Sometimes a small trauma acts in a similar fashion; it may be affecting your life in a bigger way than you would think possible.

 The first step is noticing something isn't right. Next, you seek for help and ways to make sense of who you are. From there, you can rebuild a sense of identity with more safety and redefine who you are capable of being. You always have choice; choosing today to build a better tomorrow by building upon your strengths and learning new ways of interacting with yourself and others.