Trauma isn’t simply an emotion; it is a deeply disturbing memory that invades an individual’s sense of control.
Now it is important to note that no trauma is too small- any event that leaves some kind of scar, insecurity, lingering fear, or unhealthy perspective can be traumatic and is worth discussing. Many don’t realize an event was traumatic for them and affected them until later.
Trauma comes in various shapes and sizes; forms and causes; symptoms and solutions.
Trauma does not have to be exclusively PTSD or vividly reliving an emotional memory. Trauma can simply be a lingering scar that comes up from time to time. Trauma may not affect you in vividly emotional ways, but may affect you in ways you didn’t realize until later. For example, someone who was bullied for their weight in elementary school and maintains a lingering insecurity years after but does not suffer from intense emotional reactions to the memory is a still an example of trauma. Someone who is experiencing a panic attack is experiencing trauma in that moment yet may not have that same kind of fear or reaction when thinking about the event afterwords. These examples of trauma can be described with a “little t” because it is less severe; it does not bring on debilitating symptoms yet still should not be overlooked. So, do not hesitate to seek help if you don’t have ptsd or constant emotional experiences related to the event. Any event that causes a scar, insecurity, long-term fear, or distorted perception is worth talking about.
“Big T” trauma is an event that brings heavy emotional reaction to a memory when triggered. That memory may cause flashbacks, strong anxiety such as panic attacks or heightened senses, and fearful behavior. This kind of trauma is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Examples of events that usually cause this sort of severe trauma include war, natural disasters, sexual assault, severe accident, witnessing a traumatic death, or domestic abuse.
Note that it is not the time frame of the trauma that really determines the severity, but the symptoms. For instance, a traumatic event may grab a hold of you for years. It may only affect you during a triggering situation. It may not affect you until years after the event had happened.
Although “Big t” trauma and “little t” trauma are different, they are both equally deserving of receiving help.
Trauma versus Grief:
Although both can be equally distressing, it is important to note that trauma focuses on the emotion associated with the memory, while grief is about a person. One can experience both. For example, someone who witnessed a loved one die in a car accident may suffer both grief and trauma- grief about losing the person and trauma about the events that occurred during that time. Grief may always linger, as we all lose apart of ourselves when a loved one who can never be replaced dies. However, trauma may cause that person to avoid driving their car for months after the event. Grief can cause them to cry, but trauma can give them intrusive images from the event that sets them into panic. Trauma goes beyond the event; it attaches itself to other associating situations.
That is why trauma is so important to talk about and treat, because it can affect us in ways that stretch beyond healthy reaction.
There is Hope:
Severe trauma like PTSD can be distressful, but that does not mean that it can’t be alleviated.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you how to change the thought patterns that are disturbing your life. You first must open up about the trauma (at a healthy pace) instead of holding it in, for bottling things up prevents recovery. Your therapist will determine how the event or events affected your life, in both the direct and subtle ways. Exposure response therapy is used in many anxiety related disorders, like ocd or ptsd. Although difficult at first, exposure to your dark memories or fears is what brings progress; avoidance does not. Gradual consistent exposure creates habituation, which in turn reduces anxiety overtime to the event. Less anxiety means less of the amygdala firing off your fight or flight response. More habituation to your fears means less trauma. In addition to the exposure, understanding what happened, all the ways that the event affected you, and what that means for the future are important for long-term recovery as well.