The word “trauma” is often used in our culture, yet it can be difficult to know exactly what it means. Generally speaking, a past adverse experience is considered traumatic if it is physically or psychologically overwhelming and causes one to act as if the experience is happening or is about to happen in the present. Such a belief can create irrational, disproportionate, or unrealistic reactions to present-day events. This post will explore some aspects of trauma and how it can affect our lives.
Two people facing the same painful event may experience it very differently. One person may be relatively unaffected while the other may continue to have physical, emotional, and psychological effects, even years later. Multiple factors contribute to how one responds to traumatic events: personality, age, resiliency, one’s support system, genetics, how one makes sense of the event, one’s ability to protect him or herself during the event, vulnerability factors at the time of the event, and one’s history of previous adverse experiences, to list a few. Almost any painful or stressful event can be experienced as traumatic depending on the person, the context, and the event itself. “Big T” and “small t” are terms commonly used to categorize traumatic events.
“Big T” traumas are sudden, “single-blow” events (i.e., a natural disaster, sudden serious illness, or serious car accident) and/or events which are (or perceived as) threatening to one’s own or someone else’s life or physical safety (i.e, physical and sexual abuse, rape, violence, threats of violence, witnessing violence or abuse). These events can overwhelm the person’s ability to respond, often leaving him feeling helpless and powerless. Big T traumas are typically more easily identified and validated by our families, churches, schools, and media.
Less known and less easily identified are “small t” traumas. The "small t" isn't to indicate its less important or painful. Rather, "small t" indicates its probably not physically life-threatening, but is usually insidious, chronic, and harder to talk about. Some examples of "small t" traumas are:
Most “small t” traumas are not one-time events. Instead, these typically occur in regular interactions with parents, teachers, peers, partners, supervisors, and other constant figures in our lives. Sometimes the survivor may believe this type of treatment is normal (or even healthy or Godly). It is not recognized as traumatic by her nor by those around her (including some mental health professionals). Traumatic experiences can be cumulative. The addition of new adverse experiences triggers old traumatic memories, compounding the negative consequences of past and current events. The cumulative effect is especially true for “small t” traumas, given that they are often experienced many times.
While “small t” traumas do not necessarily carry the threat of death or bodily harm, their consequences can be just as painful. Dr. Elizabeth Barbash noted that “small t” traumas are “better described as ego-threatening” because “small t” traumas overwhelm the person’s ability to hold on to a sense of authentic self. This disconnection from authentic self can create increased anxiety and depression, addiction, codependency, relationship problems, decreased self-esteem, increasing conflict with others, a decreasing ability to manage everyday life stressors, and decreased life satisfaction. For these reasons, "small t" traumas are just as damaging as "Big T", but are harder to recognize and talk about.
Regardless of the label, if you are suffering from interpersonal relationship problems, difficulty managing your emotions, mood or anxiety problems, addictions, or general life dissatisfaction, chances are you will benefit from healing old wounds which are keeping you stuck and hurting. You can find relief. If you need help or just wonder if trauma is a factor in your life, call us at (423) 269-7395 today.
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