There's a difference between "Trauma" and "trauma," and both are valid.
What psychologists often call "Big T Trauma" and "little t trauma" are said thus to differentiate between what we typically collectively acknowledge as trauma - disasters, violence, injury - and what our body categorizes as a trauma response - literally anything.
Big T Traumas can include:
- car accidents
- violent injury
- natural disasters
Horrible, horrible shit that pretty much any human would acknowledge as traumatic.
We're familiar with this. It's known and understood and agreed upon.
What I want to talk about today is "little t trauma." Because it is subtle, not well understood, and often the reason why people don't seek help for their suffering.
So, what is trauma? Little t trauma might be:
- a time in your childhood where you felt afraid
- a parent showing big emotions when you were a child
- being attacked or bullied on social media or via email
- being severely startled or thinking your life is in danger, even when it wasn't
- narrow misses while driving
- hearing bad news
- moments of embarrassment or shame
- literally anything (more on that in a sec)
What defines trauma is your body's response to a situation or stimulus.
Let me say that again:
Your body decides what is trauma.
It is NOT always logical.
It does NOT always make sense.
It does NOT always fit into a nice solid definition of readily accepted "trauma."
Your body decides.
You'll know when you have a trauma response. And that could happen to ANY stimuli.
Your body is responding to a current stimulus with the perception of a past experience.
That response might look like:
- elevated heart rate or racing heart
- adrenaline surge
- rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- wide eyes, looking for danger
- feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach
- nausea related to above
- tight chest
- freezing in place
- desire to hide or avoid the situation or flee
- tight muscles
- and so much more
This response can vary greatly from a split second to hours. From a barely noticeable physiological change to a full blown panic attack.
What's important to note here, is that this is your body responding. It is not conscious. The immediate onset is not in your control.
Which means it is NOT deserving of your own self judgement.
That's the big takeaway here.
I've seen so many people, myself completely included, deny their reactions, shame their reactions, suppress their reactions, ignore their reactions, and give themselves a whole lot of unnecessary shit for having the reaction in the first place.
Dismissing their response because it's stupid, because it is unwarranted, because it is out of proportion to the event that triggered it.
Because it's not "real" trauma.
If it doesn't look like the Big T Traumas listed above, then it doesn't count. It's not valid. It becomes a source of shame because the response is viewed as "wrong."
That is a treacherous path to tread.
Because suppressing, dismissing, and ignoring these responses does NOT fix them, does NOT make them go away. They fester.
The body remembers. Even when the mind may not.
You may not even know or recognize the event that created this trauma response in your body in the first place.
It's still worth noticing what your body is doing. Being curious about it. Seeking to understand.
And seeking help.
I'm currently working through a couple minor trauma responses I have in my body with my therapist.
One originated when I was an adult. I received some unexpected scathing emails from a prior landlord upon move-out, questioning my character and saying some pretty mean things. When I read the emails, I felt attacked. My nervous system responded as if I were being attacked, and I became so anxious in anticipation of opening his emails that I had to have my father read them instead.
That situation resolved, and I moved on.
So I thought.
My body remembered.
Now, years after the fact, I will get a surge of adrenaline if I receive a long message from anyone, namely clients or friends. My brain thinks I must have screwed up somehow, and the email will contain disappointment or even an attack.
My nervous system says any long message could be the same situation as before, when we were psychologically hurt and attacked. So, it braces for impact and prepares me by blasting my system with a burst of adrenaline.
I have scoffed and been irritated about this for years without understanding where it came from. Why am I feeling anxiety??? This is just a note from a friend, and it doesn't even have anything to do with me! Why is my body freaking out and making me feel anxious? This is stupid, unwanted, and frustrating.
Now, I understand where it comes from and I'm working on retraining my system to not view these messages as threats. It's gentle and easy, and it feels good to be looking out for my body.
So often we spin in frustration with the question "WHY!?!?!" Jumping to self-beratement rather than compassion and curiosity.
This is precisely what I do with my clients in coaching.
I help them see with self-compassion first instead of self-criticism.
In a variety of situations, not just trauma responses.
I teach them how to listen to themselves. How to be curious with their body. How to seek answers from themselves rather than immediately jumping to outsiders for help.
If this post stirred some things up for you, and you'd like to talk about it with someone, send me a message. You don't have to figure it all out alone.
Seek to understand,