The Difference Between Large 'T' Traumas and Small 't' Traumas

Posted on March 20, 2017

Photo: flickr

A traumatic experience is one that is highly disturbing, and causes people to feel helpless and out of control. Experiences such as fighting a war, living through a natural disaster or enduring physical or sexual abuse are common examples associated with trauma, but they are not all there is to trauma. While it is undoubtedly true that these are some of the most upsetting, debilitating events one can experience, such traumatic moments are known as large ‘T’ traumas. It is the small ‘t’ traumas that often go unnoticed. An event does not have to be extremely distressing for it to be traumatic. In fact, when smaller, seemingly insignificant small ‘t’ events accumulate, they give way to trauma. Many people see therapists for this reason.

There is no sure way to tell how a situation or event will affect a person. It depends on a multitude of factors that can include and are not limited to the person’s prior experiences, upbringing, values, and level of tolerance for distress. Not everyone who fights in a war winds up with PTSD, for instance.

However, it must be made clear that experiencing symptoms after a traumatic event is not a sign of psychological weakness, and neither is it a birth defect. These symptoms often surface because the individual is actively trying to avoid thinking about the traumatic experience. They believe that if they bury these memories in the back of their minds, they will be able to rid themselves of the emotional pain associated with them. Others avoid facing the traumatic memories to conceal what they perceive as “weaknesses”. While this may make them appear “tough”, prolonging the time at which they will confront these experiences is unhealthy, and is actually the leading precursor to post-trauma symptoms.

Large ‘T’ traumas are defined as large-scale, significant events that cause people to feel helpless and powerless. Natural disasters, sexual assaults and terrorist attacks are all possible large ‘T’ trauma-causing events. The extent of helplessness is much larger in large ‘T’ traumas. Those who experience traumatic experiences on such a scale are also more likely to notice that they are traumatised, as are those around them who know what they have gone through. Their attempts to avoid any memories or events associated with the large ‘T’ traumatic experience are also more obvious; for instance, people may deliberately avoid places related to the traumatic incident, refuse to pick up phone calls from investigators or, in the case of ex-soldiers, hide their military uniforms in their closets. Such avoidance is not only overt, but also time-consuming. The lives of individuals suffering from large ‘T’ traumas can already be severely affected by one such traumatic event, but if treatment is delayed and avoidance behaviours continue, the effects of large ‘T’ traumas will only continue to get worse.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) trauma symptoms are often a result of large ‘T’ traumas; small ‘t’ traumas often do not lead to the development of such adverse symptoms, but people can still develop trauma response symptoms to small ‘t’ traumas. Examples of small ‘t’ traumas include a divorce or conflicts with co-workers. They do cause distress and a decreased quality of life, but they tend to be overlooked. The accumulating effects of small ‘t’ traumas are perhaps the most dangerously ignored. People often feel ashamed for reacting to these situations, as they think that they are making a big deal out of nothing. Hence, they will cognitively shame themselves into avoiding the situation. Others may not be aware of how badly they are affected by the event. Sometimes, even therapists may overlook the event or regard it as insignificant, not because they cannot empathise with the experiencers, but because they might not adequately comprehend how much these experiences can affect a person’s emotional well-being.

Ultimately, it is important to note that being aware of the effects trauma has on you is a positive thing; there are sources and services available to help you cope with these post-trauma symptoms. Prolonged-exposure and cognitive-processing therapy are examples of evidence-based therapy methods that target post-trauma symptoms. Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is another tried and tested method. There may be no miracle cure for trauma, but with treatment, many individuals can effectively erase the impacts of these traumatic memories on their lives, while others can significantly improve the quality of their lives.


Category(s):Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) / Trauma / Complex PTSD

Source material from Psychology Today


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