Often when people hear the term “trauma” their minds turn to the terrible. They picture escaping from a war zone, physical or sexual abuse, or surviving a natural disaster. While these are examples of severely traumatic events, or what we call “big T trauma”, the truth is trauma’s scope is far broader and subtler than many are led to think.

Some examples of subtler trauma, or “little t trauma”, are the abuse of power, a betrayal of trust, feelings of helplessness, feelings of entrapment, pain, confusion, and loss of any kind; divorce, a break up, moving, death of a family member or pet, etc. “Little t trauma” occurs on a personal level, and while a person’s reaction may not warrant a diagnosis of PTSD its negative impact can reverberate through many realms of their experience.

So what exactly is trauma? Oxford’s Living English Dictionary defines trauma as, “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” To elaborate, trauma is a very stressful event that ultimately overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. The impact of trauma is determined subjectively. How a person perceives what happened to them, in part, determines its impact.

Research shows that the frequency of trauma tends to impact a person’s ability to cope. Those who experience a one-time trauma, however devastating it may be, are more likely to retain resilience than those who are exposed to multiple traumas or ongoing trauma, such as continued child abuse, which is the most difficult type of trauma to recover from.

An important detail to keep in mind is that different people respond differently to all types of trauma. While one person may walk away from a traumatic situation relatively unscathed, another may struggle emotionally and physically for years to come. This difference in response does not reflect any type of personal or moral strength, but rather is a result of the interplay of an incredibly complex system of genetic, psychological, and sociological factors in which a person continuously exists that is largely outside of one’s personal control.

The long-term effects of untreated trauma can be physically and psychologically devastating. Most people are aware that prolonged exposure to stress is damaging on various systems of the body, and untreated trauma affects the body in a very similar manner by creating a perpetual state of stress in the body. After an extended amount of time exposed to the inflammatory stress hormones this state triggers, a person’s body may become susceptible to a host of unwanted disorders and diseases such as autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, liver disease, chronic pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, dementia, and so on. It’s a scary list backed by a hefty body of scientific literature (McFarlane, 2010; Andreski, Chilcoat, & Breslau, 1998; Kessler, 2005; Korte, Koolhaas, & Wingfield 2005). Trauma may also manifest as a myriad of psychological disorders. These include but are not limited to: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and OCD. These secondary issues are, in part, what makes identifying trauma so difficult both for clinicians and for clients; it has many faces, and it’s often not what it seems.

If you’ve experienced a seriously life disrupting disturbance, large or small, it’s wise to consider the potential impact of unresolved trauma free from any of the stigma and judgment we so often heap upon any kind of “mental illness”. Trauma is something most people have experienced on some level and to some extent. If you suspect you’re suffering the negative after effects of trauma, consulting with a trained and credentialed mental health professional may help you get to the root of whatever issues have been plaguing you. With help, courage, and dedicated self-work, it is possible to alleviate—and even eradicate—many of the unwanted disturbances initiated by unresolved trauma.

 

In part 2 of this three part series I’ll describe in greater detail what clinically significant (PTSD) traumatic symptoms look like. Then in part 3 I’ll discuss treatment options designed specifically for working with trauma.

 

Elizabeth Carter, MS, NCC, LPCA

 

 

References

Andreski P, Chilcoat H, Breslau N. Post-traumatic stress disorder and somatization symptoms: a prospective study. Psychiatry Res. 1998;79:131–138. [PubMed]

 

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). (2014, January). Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Retrieved July, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/

 

Giller, E. (1999, May). What Is Psychological Trauma? Retrieved July, 2018, from https://www.sidran.org/resources/for-survivors-and-loved-ones/what-is-psychological-trauma/

 

Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62:593–602.[PubMed]

 

Korte SM, Koolhaas JM, Wingfield JC. The Darwinian concept of stress: benefits of allostasis and costs of allostatic load and the trade-offs in health and disease. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2005;29:3–38.[PubMed]

 

Andreski P, Chilcoat H, Breslau N. Post-traumatic stress disorder and somatization symptoms: a prospective study. Psychiatry Res. 1998;79:131–138. [PubMed]

 

Mager, D., MSW. (2016, February 8). Trauma Tips for Understanding and Healing-Part 1 of 4. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/some-assembly-required/201602/trauma-tips-understanding-and-healing-part-1-4

 

McFARLANE, A. C. (2010). The long-term costs of traumatic stress:  intertwined physical and psychological consequences. World Psychiatry9(1), 3–10.

 

“What's the Difference between Big ‘T’ and Little ‘t’ Trauma.” JourneyPure River, 12 Oct. 2017, journeypureriver.com/big-t-little-t-trauma/.