For today’s Mental Health Monday, I want to talk about “little t” trauma. Before we can really dig into what that is, I think it’s important to address “big T” trauma.
“Big T” trauma is what most people probably think of when they think of the word “trauma.” Near-death experiences, war combat, sexual assault, and other big, awful life events. These things can definitely be traumatizing, but trauma can be so much more.
The Definition of Trauma
According to Psychology Today, “Trauma is a deeply disturbing event that infringes upon an individual’s sense of control and may reduce their capacity to integrate the situation or circumstances into their current reality.”
Okay, there’s a lot going on in that sentence, so let’s break it down.
The definition starts with the words “deeply disturbing.” Obviously things like combat and near-death experiences qualify as “deeply disturbing,” but think of all the other things that can happen in our lives that are also disturbing. Immediately, the frame for what “counts” as trauma gets thrown wide open.
Then we have the words “infringes upon an individual’s sense of control.” When something happens to strip us of our control, that can have a significant impact on our psyches, which is why this clause is so important. Of course Big T traumas take away our control, but there are so many other events that can make us feel helpless.
Finally, the definition ends with “may reduce their capacity to integrate the situation or circumstances into their current reality.” For me, this may be the most important clause. As we live our lives, we tell ourselves a story about our reality. It’s vital that everything that happens to us can somehow fit into that narrative. But when something deeply disturbing takes away our sense of control, sometimes it becomes impossible for us to understand it in terms of our current reality. And this can have devastating consequences for our psyches.
So What is “Little t” Trauma?
Little t trauma, then, is something that fits the above definition, even if it isn’t life-threatening. You might be thinking “Okay, but technically lots of stuff could be little t trauma.”
Little t traumas happen all the time, and sometimes they can have a serious, lasting impact on who we are as people. Here is a short list with a few examples, but know that there are so many more:
- Financial stress
- Sports injury
- Academic struggles
- Chronic illness
Because these things seem “small” in comparison to the typical “big” traumas, we often fail to take the resulting psychic pain seriously, which only goes on to create even more problems. Plus, some little t traumas can happen over and over, causing them to compound become even more intense and painful.
We develop shame around these little t traumas, and instead of processing them and learning to integrate them into our narrative, we try to “move on” and “let it go” which translates to avoidance and shame. This can intensify the effects of these little t traumas, as the rift between our reality of shame and avoidance and our reality of trauma gets wider and wider.
Dealing with Trauma
I’m not a therapist, and honestly I’m still learning a lot about trauma myself, so I definitely can’t say how best to deal with it. But I can share what’s worked (and what hasn’t) for me.
First, I can confidently say that in order to heal from trauma, you have to admit and accept that what you went through was traumatic. This can be insanely difficult, because you may have structured your entire life around avoiding or ignoring this reality. Accepting your trauma means changing that narrative you’ve been telling yourself about your life, and that is no joke. Take your time with this step, and know that it’s okay (and completely normal) if you go back and forth between “It wasn’t traumatic, everything is fine!!!!” and “Fuck. That was trauma. Fuuuuuuck.”
Another piece of advice, which may help with the process of acceptance, is to create. Write, draw, just make whatever you can to help re-write your self-narrative. Obviously, as a writer, I tend to write about these things, but all kinds of creativity can help.
However, it’s important to be careful when working through trauma. It can bring up a lot of pain, and it’s always best to work through trauma with a trauma-informed therapist if at all possible. They can help you with coping skills and help keep you safe as you explore experiences and feelings that made you feel unsafe in some way.