I need to admit something to you. I have waffled for days about writing this blog post. From my perspective, the topic of trauma is laden with emotion. The word, trauma, itself may be triggering. So, I wavered between writing about a lighter topic and digging in deep here.
Something in me kept coming back to trauma.
The more I read and researched, the more I wanted to explore how to heal from trauma. It was only after a recent Zoom call with my friend, Samia, from BC – a brilliant accountant and psychotherapist (Q) – who recently started her therapy practicum placement, that I realized…trauma is just too prevalent and important of an issue to not feature on the Authentika blog.
The focus of this post is on little t (also known as small t) relational trauma. Whether you’re a leader, a parent, an adolescent, or a survivor, I hope there is a nugget of value in the content that will resonate with you.
As there are many experts whose work needs to be featured, I’ve included a number of links and resources.
Here’s what I know.
- We’re all on a journey of survival and discovery.
- At some time in our life, we’ve experienced a form of relational trauma.
- The challenge and mystery of it is that the pain is something no one easily brings into the light or freely discloses to others.
- We want to feel normal, be liked, be accepted and most of all, we want to feel safe.
- Trauma steals that from us like a slow, hidden leak from our heart.
Not dealing with trauma can make how we show up in every relationship more challenging.
We might not realize why or how.
In my next post, I’ll share tips for dealing with little t trauma. There is just so much to unpack here that I thought it best to chunk out the concepts before the interventions. I hope you’ll stay with me through this process.
Suggested Reading: Tips for Healing from Trauma in Your Life Through EMDR
Big T and Little t Trauma
Let’s start at the beginning by looking at the difference between big T and little t trauma.
Big T Trauma
According to the DSM 5 and Briere and Scott’s Principles of Trauma Therapy, a traumatic event usually is a singular occurrence where the person experienced a loss of control or a fear for their lives or the life of their loved ones. The original definition limits Big T trauma to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. (Briere & Scott, 2015).” It could be “(1) directly experiencing the traumatic event(s); (2) witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others; (3) learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend; (4) experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders)” (Briere & Scott, 2015).
War Veterans Aren’t the Only Ones…
When it comes to trauma or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, we often think about war veterans whose wartime experiences have forever changed their experiences of the world. Big T trauma isn’t resigned to just those who fought for their country, it includes a broader range of individuals including those who have experienced a life-threatening event or situation.
Suggested viewing and listening
Movies to watch or rewatch
Born on the Fourth of July with Tom Cruise (It is available on Apple TV and Prime Video to rent or purchase).
Documentaries to watch
Watch Dr. Gabor Maté’s Movie: The Wisdom of Trauma (cost associated, but you can watch the trailer for free)
Little T Trauma
The biggest difference between the big T and little t is that the event catalyzed a traumatic response in a person. In contrast to Big T trauma, there is some form of significant distress, but it doesn’t need to involve a natural disaster or a violent crime, a death, or a serious car accident. Little t trauma could be the death or loss of a beloved pet, losing a job, being rejected by a friend group, or the end of a relationship (romantic or otherwise).
Little t Trauma Can Be More Harmful than One Big T Trauma
It can feel like a death by a thousand cuts. According to Newport Institute, any event or ongoing situation that causes distress, fear, and a sense of helplessness constitutes trauma. Traumatic stress can trigger anxiety, depression, and other comorbidity including eating disorders and substance abuse.
Triggering the Amygdala
When a person doesn’t feel safe, loved, or accepted, a relational little t trauma exists. Examples include parents who neglect or abandon their child, or whose substance use or work habits prevent them for meeting the needs of their child. The child may experience constant fighting between parents or other siblings.
It also could involve situations where the child is criticized, feels unheard or unaccepted. As a result, the trauma creates the experience of a disconnection that the child internalizes. This criticism shapes their core beliefs, core fears, and may negatively influence their self-esteem.
The ongoing feeling of not being in a safe environment will trigger the amygdala to stay in a heightened state of arousal where it is constantly scanning for threats.
What I found most shocking is that one in every six adults experiences at least four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (Newport Institute, n.d.).
Additionally, many Big T traumas such as wartime experiences and violent crimes (e.g., SA) occur between the ages of 17 and 26 (Briere & Scott, 2015). These stats reveal that the impact of trauma on young people carries over into adulthood and affects all relationships, personal and professional alike.
My wish is that you are able to take steps to gain insights about little t trauma – whether in yourself or in those around you – so that you can employ empathy and self-compassion in truly meaningful ways.
Suggested Reading: Tips for Practicing Emotional Self Regulation
Big T vs. little T trauma in young adults: Is there a difference? Newport Institute. (2022, June 22). https://www.newportinstitute.com/resources/mental-health/big-t-little-t-trauma/
Briere, J. N., & Scott, C. (2015). Principles of trauma therapy: A guide to symptoms, evaluation, and treatment (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.