By Wesley Gallagher
Trauma – we’ve all heard the word. And we all have an idea of what it means. But for those of us who’ve experienced trauma or have loved ones who have, it’s important to know the true definition of this term and all of its implications.
Trauma can come in many forms and affect people in many ways. Knowing what to look for and how to deal with trauma symptoms can help you and loved ones deal with the effects of traumatic experiences.
What Is Trauma?
According to Psychology Today, trauma is “a deeply disturbing event that infringes upon an individual’s sense of control and may reduce their capacity to integrate the situation or circumstances into their current reality.” Trauma can come from overtly distressing events like war or combat, natural disasters, physical or sexual abuse or catastrophic events, but it can come from less obvious events as well.1
Large “T” Trauma
Large “T” trauma is the type that most people think of when they think of trauma. Psychology Today defines large “T” trauma as “an extraordinary and significant event that leaves the individual feeling powerless and possessing little control in their environment.” These traumas are easily recognizable as such and often lead to feelings of great helplessness.
Examples of such traumas include:
- Natural disasters or catastrophic events
- Terrorist attacks
- Sexual or physical assault
- Combat or war
- Car or plane accident1
Small “t” Trauma
The accumulation of smaller everyday or less pronounced events can also cause trauma. Small “t” traumas, according to Psychology Today, are “events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning.” Such events aren’t inherently life threatening, but rather ego-threatening, as they cause people to feel helpless in their circumstances.
Examples of small “t” traumas include:
- Conflict with family members
- Infidelity or divorce
- Conflict with a boss or colleague
- A sudden or extended relocation or move
- Planning a wedding or starting a new job
- Having or adopting a child
- Financial or legal worries1
Often these traumas are overlooked or minimized by the person experiencing them, who may rationalize the experience as common and therefore think they are just overreacting. Unfortunately, this is a form of avoidance, which is an unhealthy way to cope. Some people may not even recognize how disturbed they are by the event or situation, causing them to overlook symptoms of trauma that might be connected to it. While one small “t” trauma is unlikely to cause significant trauma symptoms, the accumulation of such traumas over time can compound and cause great distress.1
Impacts of Trauma
Trauma impacts everyone differently, and its effects are largely dependent on predisposing factors. These include past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, expectations, levels of distress tolerance, values and morals and the ability to process the experience without avoidance. Not everyone who goes through something traumatic will experience trauma symptoms, and among those who do experience them, the symptoms vary.1
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one trauma over the course of their lives.2 Although each person who goes through a traumatic event or events will deal with it differently, there are common trauma symptoms many people will experience, including the following:
- Re-experiencing the trauma. This can include replays of traumatic memories in the mind, nightmares and flashbacks, which can make you feel as if the trauma is happening all over again.
- Emotional reactions. Fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt and numbness are all common trauma symptoms.
- Avoiding thinking about the event or avoiding anything related to the event is a common but often unhealthy way of coping with trauma. This is a key factor in development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Changes in how you view the world and yourself. Such changes may include difficulty trusting people, blaming yourself or others for the trauma or how it was handled, seeing yourself as weak or inadequate and criticizing yourself for your reactions to the trauma.
- Hyperactive nervous system. You might feel constantly on guard or see danger everywhere, be easily startled and have trouble sleeping and even lose interest in sex.3
While experiencing these symptoms for a short time after trauma is normal and healthy, severe symptoms that last for several months or years are often categorized as PTSD.2 According to Psych Central, less than 10 percent of people develop PTSD after 12 months of exposure to general trauma, and only 37 percent of people exposed to intentional trauma develop PTSD.4 Regardless, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of it.
How to Process Trauma
If you’re experiencing symptoms of trauma or have gone through a traumatic experience, please know that there is nothing wrong with the symptoms you are experiencing. In fact, many of the symptoms are your body and brain’s natural, healthy response to the trauma, and for many people the symptoms subside with time. Seeking social support and facing your symptoms head on will help you overcome them.
If you find, however, that your symptoms are prolonged or worsening, it’s important that you seek professional help. PTSD is not a sign of weakness, but rather a biological illness with real neurological consequences. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to the disorder, and some may develop it because the trauma they’ve experienced was particularly horrific or long lasting.
Whatever the cause, you cannot get better by simply trying harder. Treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have all been shown to successfully treat PTSD symptoms. Certain medications like mood stabilizers or brain-calming medicines like prazosin may also help.2
If you or a loved one is dealing with trauma symptoms or PTSD, please call our 24-hour helpline to talk to one of our admissions coordinators who can help you take the next steps toward recovery.
1 Barbash, Elyssa. “Different Types of Trauma: Small ‘t’ versus Large ‘T.’” Psychology Today, March 13, 2017.
2 Ryback, Ralph. “5 Myths About PTSD.” Psychology Today, October 31, 2016.
3 Gillihan, Seth. “21 Common Reactions to Trauma.” Psychology Today, September 7, 2016.
4 Staggs, Sara. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Myths & Facts.” Psych Central, January 9, 2018.