January 20, 2023
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Illustration by Brittany England
Trauma looks different for everyone, and sometimes we don’t even recognize our own. But learning to do so is important — and one of the first steps toward healing.
Last week a friend of mine reached out to me because they’re struggling. They recently broke up with their partner of 4 years and shared with me that they’re angry at themselves for still feeling depressed weeks after the initial breakup.
The thing is, my friend deserves to be kinder to themselves. For them, their breakup was extremely distressing and left them feeling overwhelmed as they worked to rebuild their life. Some might even consider this type of event “little t” trauma.
If you’ve experienced a stressful event in your life that affects you after the fact and you don’t know why, you might benefit from seeking treatment. It’s important to know that your response to any stressor is valid and deserves attention.
In the broader sense, trauma can be defined as an emotional response to any event perceived as dangerous by the person who went through it.
Some people use the terms “big T” and “little t” trauma to distinguish between different kinds of stressful experiences and responses. While researchers and most mental health professionals don’t currently use these terms, they helped me better understand that various forms of stressors can have an impact on your mental health.
“Big T” trauma typically refers to events that are universally understood as dangerous or life threatening.
This form of trauma is what often comes to mind when we think of traumatic events, such as serious injuries, sexual violence, or natural disasters. Events like these are specifically referred to in the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Little t” trauma refers to events that may not involve potential death or serious injury but can be stressful enough to negatively affect your mental health.
“Little t” traumas can include — but are by no means limited to — sexual harassment, financial hardship, or breakups.
For some trauma survivors and psychologists, the terms “big T” and “little t” trauma do more harm than good.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Robyn E. Brickel believes that the terms “big T” and “little t” trauma can minimize and invalidate people’s traumatic experiences. “It’s unhelpful in mental health practice to conceptualize some traumatic events as less or more significant than others,” Brickel writes.
She explains that by doing so, trauma survivors may feel more stigma around their response to an event if it’s considered only “little t” trauma.
Researchers avoid this terminology for a different reason. Within the field of science, trauma specifically refers to life threatening events because of the unique ways in which this degree of danger can affect our brains — such as developing PTSD — and the unique ways in which these symptoms or conditions should be treated.
Referring to extremely stressful but non-life-threatening events as “little t” trauma runs the risk of indicating that such events have the same type of impact on our brains and should be treated in the same way as “big T” trauma. For example, while both “big T” and “little t” trauma can lead to serious mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety, only events that fall under “big T” trauma can cause PTSD and might require specialized treatment.
Despite these important differences, understanding the concept of “little t” trauma was a huge step for me in my recovery.
The concept made me feel validated because it demonstrated that all forms of stressors can have a strong impact on your well-being and should be taken seriously.
If I had never learned about “little t” trauma, I would still believe that I shouldn’t be suffering because other people have it worse than I do. Learning about “little t” trauma helped me stop minimizing my pain and seek treatment.
Acknowledging my trauma and facing it head-on was essential to my recovery journey. I used to have the mindset of: “why does it matter if we acknowledge our trauma? Isn’t it easier to continue minimizing it and pretending it doesn’t exist?”
Today I say, “No, not at all!” For me, avoidance and minimization were actually a big part of my own experience and what led me to be diagnosed with PTSD.
According to the National Center for PTSD, “If you go out of your way to avoid thoughts, feelings, and reminders related to a traumatic event, your symptoms may get worse. Using avoidance as your main way of coping with traumatic memories can make PTSD symptoms worse and make it harder to move on with your life.”
If you realize that you engage in avoidant behaviors when it comes to tough memories from your past, you can change that. The first step toward healing for me was validating my trauma and acknowledging that it impacted my life.
Here are some tips that helped me get there:
A great place to start is with yourself. If you don’t yet feel comfortable reaching out to loved ones or a professional for help, that’s OK. You can take some actions to feel validated all by yourself.
Connecting with others and being vulnerable in safe spaces can be incredibly healing.
Reaching out to a therapist who specializes in trauma is essential. Many therapeutic practices can help you process your trauma or stressful event in a safe environment.
If you’re like my friend from the beginning of this article, you might be struggling with your mental health but avoiding the pain by telling yourself that others have it worse than you.
For me, the real healing began when I stopped minimizing and started validating my painful experiences. In facing the impact of these events, I was able to move forward and start my journey to recovery.
Medically reviewed on January 20, 2023
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