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Defining Trauma, So It Doesn’t Define You

Trauma; something we are all likely to experience to a certain extent in our lives. Understanding how trauma is defined can help you on your journey. It is also helpful for those who have friends or family that are struggling with their trauma so as to not minimize the very real impact to everyday life.  […]

Trauma; something we are all likely to experience to a certain extent in our lives. Understanding how trauma is defined can help you on your journey. It is also helpful for those who have friends or family that are struggling with their trauma so as to not minimize the very real impact to everyday life. 

Trauma is generally categorized by what experts call big ‘T’ trauma or little ‘t’ trauma. Officially, a PTSD diagnosis is the result of a big ‘T’ trauma which is any event that one would consider extremely distressing. Some events that fall in this category include sexual abuse or combat violence as well as major car accidents, plane crashes, and living through natural disasters. On the other hand, little ‘t’ trauma is classified as more “personal” personal stressors such as career changes, messy breakups, unexpected major expenses, and the loss of loved ones. Now that you have a general understanding of the classifications, let’s dive a little deeper. 

Big ‘T’

Big ‘T’ traumas are the events most commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including serious injury, sexual assault, or life-threatening experiences. The DSM-5 defines a PTSD trauma as any situation where one’s life or bodily integrity is threatened. 

Threats of serious physical injury, death, or sexual violence can cause intense trauma even if the person is never physically harmed. Even those not directly involved in the experience, ie. witnesses and loved ones, may be vulnerable to PTSD as well. These situations often leave individuals feeling powerless and possessing little control in their environment. Helplessness is also a key factor of big ‘T’ traumas. 

Little ‘t’

Little ‘t’ traumas are highly distressing events that affect individuals on a personal level but don’t fall into the big ‘T’ trauma category. These events exceed our capacity to cope and cause disruptions in emotional functioning. While they may not be life-threatening, they may be described as ego-threatening due to the notable feeling of helplessness. Examples of little ‘t’ traumas include non life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, death of a pet, bullying/harassment, and the loss of a significant relationship. 

People have unique capacities for handling stress, referred to as resilience, which impacts their ability to cope with trauma. What is highly distressing to one person may not cause the same emotional response in someone else. The key to understanding these differing traumas is to examine on an individual level as opposed to focusing on the event itself. 

“One of the most overlooked aspects regarding small ‘t’ trauma is their accumulated effect,” writes psychologist Elyssa Barbash in Psychology Today. “One small ‘t’ trauma may not lead to significant distress, multiple compounded small ‘t’ traumas may lead to increased distress and trouble with emotional function.”

How trauma can manifest

Research shows that all forms of trauma have a strong correlation to substance abuse. Studies of adolescents in treatment for addiction demonstrate that over 70% cite histories of trauma exposure. Teens who have been sexually abused or assaulted , Big ‘T’ trauma, are three times more likely to abuse substances than their peers. Hence, trauma, particularly early in life, is a clear risk factor for addiction. One reason for this link between emotional suffering and addiction might be that those with untreated trauma tend to bear a multitude of triggers for substance abuse. These emotional triggers can easily develop into addictive cravings. 

While experiencing a traumatic event, like the COVID-19 pandemic, and dealing with the aftermath can feel like an uphill battle, there is hope. Individuals with trauma histories are more likely to require professional help and long-term support to overcome their addictions. There is no shame in asking for and receiving help. Failing to address the emotional suffering of any traumatic event may lead to cumulative damage over time. Whether you experience little ‘t’ or big ‘T’ trauma, seek the help you need. 

For more information on how to recognize and cope with coronavirus trauma, check out my article in Simply Woman.

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