• Bri Smith

Have I Experienced Trauma?

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

The difference between Little “t” and Big “T” trauma.

By Bri Smith

July 19th 2019

When we discuss trauma, it’s easy for people to dismiss their own experiences as “not trauma”. Especially when we compare our stories to others. It’s easy to say “well, I wasn’t in a major car accident…” or “I’ve never been held at gunpoint”... but trauma is not one size fits all, and it’s definitely not something we can measure against the trauma of others.

One thing in particular about trauma that we need to understand is that it can come in ALL sizes. Small to gigantic, trauma is very personal and can be almost anything that negatively impacts you in a deep way. The dictionary describes trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” or an “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis”. This can mean that trauma can come from a mean nickname given to you as a child, a minor traffic accident, or something serious like rape, physical abuse, combat, or the death of a loved one.

Little “t” trauma:

For some, calling our distressing and painful moments “trauma” may seem silly when compared to more catastrophic events, so this is where the little “t”, big “T” discussion comes into play. One way we can distinguish the types of trauma that impact us is by categorizing it into two buckets. Little “t” trauma is the accumulation of smaller impactful events that affect our ability to cope, leaving us with a sense of hopelessness or helplessness, and may drive the way we see ourselves and the world around us. These little “t” trauma events can be (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Divorce or infidelity

  • A minor or moderate car accident

  • Loss of work or starting a new job

  • Planning or calling off a wedding

  • Sustained or sudden financial difficulty

  • Having, adopting, taking or losing custody of a child

  • A difficult or unexpected pregnancy

  • Conflicts with loved ones

  • Bullying of any type (childhood or adulthood)

  • Public shaming

  • Being in a place of extreme responsibility for yourself and others - and more

Although this list covers many types of stressful situations, there are endless life events that may contribute to your experience of small “t” trauma. The thing about this type of trauma is that we can often rationalize it away as normal difficulties of life, which in turn leads us to experience shame for the inability to process or cope well with the situation. Regardless of how “small” we may make these situations in our lives out to be, the moments that negatively impact you in a deep and lasting way are definitely considered trauma.

It’s especially the accumulation of these traumas that may lead to a sense of overwhelm, despair, or exhaustion that can impact day to day life. When the impact of this trauma is actively avoided, it may further fester internally and may lead to coping mechanisms that are unhealthy, or even potentially harmful - like overeating, drug use, alcohol use, lashing out, isolation, self-harm, withdrawal from work or friendships, or avoidance of self-care. These avoidance methods may also lead to more trauma and isolation, causing a vicious cycle of suffering.

Big “T” Trauma:

A more commonly known definition of Trauma is the severe and debilitating events that may devastate someone physically, emotionally, financially, and more. These Traumatic experiences make carrying on with a “normal” life rather difficult and may leave the victim feeling powerless over their environment or life. Events like:

  • A natural disaster

  • Terrorist attack

  • Sexual assault

  • Rape

  • Incest

  • Physical dismemberment or injury

  • Combat/war zone

  • Car or plane accident

  • The intentional or accidental death of one or more loved ones

  • Physical attack by one or multiple attackers

  • Carjacking

  • Hostage event

  • Gang involvement or incarceration

  • Mass shooting

  • The threat of death by gun or other weapons

  • The loss of a pregnancy, or the loss of a pregnant partner

  • Robbery, looting, riots, and more

  • Witnessing an accident, death, physical violence, or sexual attack

  • Debilitating addiction

These types of events often disrupt life in such a way that may cause severe attempts to avoid memories, similar environments, people, places, or objects as a form of self-preservation. According to Psychology Today, “One large ‘T’ trauma is often enough to cause severe distress and interfere with an individual’s daily functioning, and this effect is intensified the longer avoidance behaviors endure and treatment is circumvented”. Although it is a natural response to want to avoid thoughts of the event due to the overwhelm and pain of reliving the trauma, healing from the event is also delayed due to avoidance. PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is often experienced after big “T” Traumas such as the ones listed above, although some professionals agree that the accumulation of small “t” trauma’s can certainly lead to symptoms of PTSD and difficulty functioning emotionally. Often aligned with extreme paranoia, a feeling of being haunted by the past, nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks, these disruptions may all be a part of someone’s struggle with PTSD.

How to heal after compounded trauma or severe Trauma

For many people, the shame, guilt, fear, or overwhelm of stigma associated with Trauma or PTSD keeps them isolated and unable to walk down a healing path. It takes courage and energy to actively seek help after such an earth-shattering event. As Psychologist, Arielle Schwartz put it in an interview with Everyday Health,