Little-t and big-T trauma
It’s important to explain how I use the word “trauma” in my work. All our bodies carry some residue of physical and psychological tension as most of us have encountered some personal harm, injury or stress that was either physically and/or emotionally overwhelming. These memories, if not adequately processed, are stored in the body/mind as either “little-t traumas” or “big-T traumas”.
“Little-t traumas” although not life-threatening, are highly disturbing events that evoke overwhelming negative emotions and result in painful, unresolved memories which negatively impact on the person’s view of self and others. Most people have had several such experiences during their lifetime, with events that occur in childhood having the greatest emotional impact. Being separated from parents, being bullied or punished at school, the death of a pet are all events that can create “little-t” traumas. Psychological abuse is a core component of domestic violence and can be even more devastating than the “big-T” trauma of physical abuse itself.
Other examples of “little-t traumas” are experiences which exceed our capacity to cope and include events like impacts of minor medical/dental procedures; an abrupt house move; being socially excluded; losing friends; failing an exam or interview; job loss/failure; divorce/break-up/discovering partner infidelity – basically anything that overwhelms our capacities to cope at the time of occurrence. It also includes the pervasive, anxiety-provoking scenes from our past or childhood such as humiliation or being rejected, which can be significant and can have lasting negative consequences. “Little-t traumas” also include any repeated or ongoing criticism/disregard/neglect/abuse of every type, where perpetrators are the people to whom the victim must continue to turn for protection.
Chronic maltreatment or repeated trauma can have a pervasive effect on the developing mind and brain, which may result in breakdown in the capacity to regulate internal emotional states. It’s helpful to think of trauma as the experience we had and how we interpreted and reacted to it, rather than the exposure to it. Different people may have exposure to the same stimulus, but have very different experiences/reactions to the event(s).
“Big-T traumas” include big impacts, often single events. They involve death, or the threat of death or serious injury, to which the person reacts with feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Examples are major medical/dental/surgical procedures; big car/work accidents/bank hold-up; threatened or actual injury; close exposure to natural disasters/war; public shaming; sexual assault/rape; domestic violence or abuse; discovering partner infidelity; witnessing abuse or death. The exposure to any of these can be direct, witnessed, or something that happened to a friend or relative. Witnessing a trauma may have similar or sometimes worse impacts than personally undergoing a trauma because of the helplessness/powerlessness one may feel.
“Trauma is a fact of life. But it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.” Dr. Peter Levine – developer of Somatic Experiencing therapy
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