Big "T" and Little "t" Trauma

When we talk about trauma, we are often referencing momentous events. Wars, assaults, and horrifying accidents are examples of what we might call Big "T" trauma. They are shocking moments that break through our ability to cope and shake us to our core.

Little "t" traumas, on the other hand, often go overlooked. These are events that are deeply painful, yet may unfortunately be common enough in society that their significance is minimized. They are still traumatic, though, if they overwhelm our ability to cope and cause us to feel helpless and isolated.

Emotional abuse is a common example of this. A child who is called "stupid" by a parent does not have the capacity to cope with a verbal attack by a trusted caregiver. Being cheated on and lied to by a partner can shake our faith in relationships and our own perceptions. Being sexually harassed may cause unbearable stress every day at work and every night in anticipation of returning.

Other events that may seem common but can cause feelings of helplessness and isolation include:

  • Being emotionally neglected

  • Going through a divorce

  • Having a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse problem

  • Being bullied

  • Starting or losing a job

  • Feeling burdened by constant financial stress

  • Managing a medical illness

  • An important relationship ending

On a cultural level, being part of a marginalized group that is directly or indirectly under attack can wear away at the ability to cope and be hopeful for the future. There are a number of studies that highlight the detrimental impact of social environmental stress on emotional well being.

The impact of little "t" trauma may show up physically. Symptoms may include:

  • Muscle tension

  • Feeling worn down

  • Being constantly on edge

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Little appetite

  • Digestive problems

  • Shakiness, as if from a constant stream of adrenaline.

Psychologically we may experience:

  • Intrusive memories of the stressor

  • Having nightmares

  • Feeling as if we are in that stressful experience even when circumstances are different

  • A desire to avoid reminders of the stressor

  • An increased view of ourselves and the world as bad or dangerous

  • Social isolation

  • Lack of interest in things that matter to you

  • Being constantly on alert for danger

  • Difficulty feeling happy

  • Being easily startled

In addition to feeling the pain of the little "t" traumas, there is an increased likelihood of feeling ashamed for being so hurt by what is supposed to be an everyday experience. This may decrease the chance of reaching out for help or using coping skills.

It is easy to rationalize away feelings. It is much harder to acknowledge just how much pain you are in. Yet, it is only by admitting to yourself just how hurt you that you can begin to take steps forward toward recovery.

Reach out for help today.