In psychological terms, trauma can be defined as ‘emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis’. When something happens to us that evokes intense emotion – emotion that overwhelms us – it can cause long-term changes to the brain, resulting in emotional (and sometimes physical) symptoms that persist over time.
When we think about this psychological trauma, what often comes to mind is big ‘T’ trauma – emotional damage caused by acute, catastrophic events that can almost literally rock a person’s world: a natural disaster; experiencing or witnessing violence; sexual assault; a terrible road accident. But what many people don’t realise is that little ‘t’ trauma – smaller, less ‘shock and awe’ events – can also accumulate and cause emotional injury over time.
What is little ‘t’ trauma?
Little ‘t’ trauma is caused by distressing events that may not be physically violent or life-threatening but that nevertheless disrupt our emotional equilibrium. And, yes, these ‘smaller’, more personal, events may be experiences that affect many of us every day. Some examples of little ‘t’ trauma include:
- emotional abuse
- academic struggles
- disruption to a healthy parent-child bond
- chronic pain
- change or loss of employment
- financial difficulties
- abrupt relocation
- infidelity or the loss of a significant relationship
Although big ‘T’ traumas are, by their very nature, life-threatening events, and little ‘t’ traumas may appear ‘small’ in comparison, the latter version of trauma is no less valid or detrimental, especially if incidents of little ‘t’ trauma repeat and accumulate over time. Indeed, research has shown that in some cases, repeated exposure to a series of little ‘t’ traumas can cause more emotional damage than a single big ‘T’ incident, especially when these experiences take place during childhood.
Little ‘t’ traumas can have a pronounced impact on our wellbeing. Shame, guilt and avoidance can develop around these traumas, often stemming from an attempt to ‘not make a big deal of it’ and invalidating our own emotions. If left untreated, this internalised shame can feed into unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns years, and even decades, later.
Processing little ‘t’ trauma
With little ‘t’ trauma often misunderstood or overlooked, one of the first steps in processing and working towards resolving the trauma is acknowledging its presence in the first place. Although we may not have lived through a big ‘T’ traumatic event, it is crucial to recognise emotions that arise from little ‘t’ trauma events, rather than suppressing them.
Changes in the brain caused by trauma – big or little – can put the body in a constant state of fight or flight, making it hard to stay focussed, increasing anxiety or feelings of anger, and possibly disrupting sleep patterns, resulting in fatigue. Acknowledging that these emotions and bodily responses are symptoms of trauma can also trigger intense, and often confusing or conflicting feelings. Examining and accepting these feelings with the help of a trained trauma therapist can help you process and integrate the event or events and alleviate the physiological symptoms of little ‘t’ trauma.
Contact our compassionate Ocean Grove psychologists
If you recognise aspects of yourself reading about little ‘t’ trauma – and if you’re struggling with avoidant emotions, anxiety or depression because of that trauma – it may be time to reach out for help.
Psychologists at Happy Minds Psychology have undergone specialist training to support you through your trauma counselling. Using evidence-based methods, including cognitive-processing therapy, we can work to build resilience, reduce the emotional distress that has resulted from disturbing life experiences, and create sustainable positive change.
Our warm and supportive counselling sessions are available face-to-face in our Bellarine Peninsula office or via Telehealth across Australia. For appointments, contact the Happy Minds team on ☎0431 666 050, fill out our contact form, or email us at [email protected].