Trauma is a word that is frequently used, but what does it actually mean? Trauma is commonly understood as the experiencing or witnessing of an event that is life-threatening or dangerous or otherwise overwhelming. It usually involves a feeling of helplessness. Many people serving in the military experience trauma, as do individuals who survive a natural disaster, serious accident, or personal attack. Traumatic stress can also be caused by ongoing stress caused by, for example, living in an abusive relationship or struggling with a life-threatening illness.
However, what determines whether or not an event is traumatic is not the event itself, but the individual’s response to it. Any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Some people will experience the breakup of a significant relationship as traumatic, for example.
An event is most likely to be experienced as traumatic if:
- It happened unexpectedly;
- You were unprepared for it;
- You felt powerless to prevent it;
- It happened repeatedly;
- Someone was intentionally cruel;
- It happened in childhood.
What are the symptoms of traumatic stress?
A person who has been traumatised may experience some or all of the following:
- Constantly thinking about the event even when they don’t intend to;
- Re-experiencing the feelings and body sensations of the event;
- Avoiding reminders of the event by steering clear of certain places, people or subjects;
- Having nightmares of the event;
- Feeling on edge, expecting danger or reacting differently from others to certain events or people;
- Dissociating – shutting off aspects of their experience;
- A difficulty in trusting people or the world in general.
It is normal to experience the above symptoms immediately after experiencing a trauma; however, if they continue for longer than a few weeks, they can seriously disrupt a person’s ability to cope with normal life.
Note that smaller upsetting events (small t traumas), particularly seemingly insignificant events that occur in childhood (eg being teased or humiliated in some way) can be at the root of many emotional and relational difficulties in adult life.
"Big T" and "Small t" traumas
Big T traumas are those events (eg rape and war), that involve physical harm and/or a threat to life or physical safety. Big T trauma is trauma in its most severe form, often leading to the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Small t traumas are life events that are more common experiences, which are upsetting, but which may not generally be thought of as traumatic. The term small t trauma does not imply, however, that the emotional impact of such an event is insignificant – to the person experiencing it, no small t trauma feels small, and the emotional wounds can be as long lasting as those from Big T trauma.
All of us have experienced a number small t traumas in life: being teased or bullied at school, losing friends by moving from school to school during childhood, a teacher shouting at us in front of the whole class, the death of a pet, losing a job, or divorce.
These traumas strongly influence the way you view the world and shape how you cope in life. For example, the small t trauma of being teased or excluded by peers can leave you with low self-esteem and the belief that you are not good enough – despite the fact that you may see no connection between the two.