Ask a Therapist #13: On Trauma
Q: I don’t understand what people mean when they say they have gone through a traumatic experience. Could you help me understand what trauma is and how it affects people?
A: The truth is, every person has experienced trauma to one degree or another whether they realize it or not. Trauma is a complex topic so this short article will not even attempt to provide a comprehensive overview. Let’s simply open up the conversation with a few helpful introductory thoughts.
As a psychotherapist, I work with a fairly broad definition of trauma: if a person experiences an event that overwhelms her nervous system and makes it difficult to cope, I would characterize that experience as traumatic. Somehow, the trauma lingers with her as a kind of stuck point in her system and can have psychological, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual repercussions. These trauma-induced impacts can vary greatly in type, intensity, and frequency.
Aundi Kolber offers a helpful distinction between big T trauma and little t trauma in her book, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode – and into a Life of Connection and Joy. She suggests that traumatic experiences exist on a spectrum and can be better understood by considering severity. On one end, big T trauma might be attached to a major singular event like witnessing a murder or other heinous crime, experiencing sexual violence, enduring a natural disaster, or losing a loved one suddenly or unexpectedly. On the other end, little t trauma may be a result of a smaller or less dramatic exposure like hearing a harsh word of criticism, feeling a sensory overload in the workplace, receiving a shocking bit of news, or navigating the day-to-day challenges of a toxic relationship.
Big T trauma can lead to symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) almost immediately whereas little t trauma often has more of a cumulative affect. Accumulation of little t traumas over time can lead to similar psychological and physiological outcomes to PTSD and a combination of big T and little T traumas can produce their own mix of results based on a number of factors related to the particular person. Common PTSD symptoms include hyper-vigilance, hypersensitivity, nightmares and flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, emotional outbursts, and the like. In short, big T trauma can feel like someone has cut off your hand in one blow whereas little t trauma is more like a death by paper cuts.
An individual’s perception of the challenging event has a significant affect on how things linger in a client’s thoughts behaviours moving forward. For example, two people who experience the same car accident may have incredibly different reactions to it and that is perfectly normal. Also, how an individual remembers the event can have an impact as well: a traumatic experience can be relived as if it is happening in the present even though it is technically in the past. A client may feel like she is re-experiencing the event viscerally which can be incredibly overwhelming and cause the traumatic impacts to be sustained in her system. It is also important to consider the client’s background and personality as these factors contribute to her experience of trauma and her resiliency. Some clients will find ways to cope and manage day-to-day but they may not be able to fully heal without some additional support.
As stated, trauma is complex and there are many factors that contribute to how someone recovers from these lived experiences, regardless of whether we are addressing big T or little T trauma. In trauma-informed therapy, a client would work through some emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills at the onset of the therapeutic work in order to create some stability and healthy coping. After that safety and security is established, the therapist would support the client in exploring the traumatic events in a way that helps her restore her nervous system and find a way to become unstuck. This journey of healing and liberation from trauma can take some time but there is hope for renewal and freedom from these events that often seem to highjack one’s day-to-day life.
If you have experienced something that has overwhelmed your nervous system and impaired your ability to cope, it might be time to seek out some support to deal with your trauma. There is a way through and you don’t have to be stuck in this suffering forever. Take a step to learn more about trauma, to talk to a trusted friend or family member, or contact a therapist about what you are going through and continue to move in a healing direction.
As a side note, in the field of psychology, I am noticing a trend towards the label of PTSR instead of PTSD where “Recovery” replaces the word “Disorder”. I think this is a helpful shift because – when we experience trauma – stress is a normal result of undergoing an abnormal experience; so, we may feel disordered as a result of trauma but we do not necessarily have a disorder. I think this is a more accurate and empathetic distinction that offers hope to those seeking healing paths through trauma.
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