Yes, you’re suffering from trauma. As trauma is a universal part of life, you have suffered or are suffering from its impact. Therapists have referred to types of trauma as “little T” trauma or “Big T” trauma to discuss the severity of its impact.
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event where we perceive ourselves as “unsafe”. During trauma, your body enters a state of arousal, fight or flight as your brain scans for signs of danger.
When we hear the word “trauma,” it is common to think of experiences in war, natural disasters, sexual abuse, neglect, or violence. However, even if you are someone who has never experienced any of these occurrences, you are still most likely affected by the effects of trauma in your life. Your day-to-day experiences, including your ability to emotionally regulate and control your stress.
“Little t” traumas, or “microtraumas,” can often occur in even the most emotionally healthy childhoods, as you lacked a comprehensive understanding of events you were experiencing as a child.
For example, If you were a child playing with a toy and accidentally broke it. Your parent comes in, sees the broken toy, and they become angry, scolding and yelling at you. At this age, you rely on your parent to feed, clothe and keep you safe. Your young mind may experience your parent’s intense anger to mean you are “bad” or “unlovable.” This simple experience can be indirectly perceived as a life-threatening situation. On an unconscious or preverbal level, you may think you are not worthy of receiving care. Through this event, you could form beliefs such as “I’m not good enough” or “If I’m bad, then I will be rejected.”
Examples of microtraumas can include:
- Being interrupted or talked over
- Being treated with disrespect
- Incessant criticism
- Being yelled at or scolded often
- Being left out
- Being ignored
- Having your boundaries violated
- Not having your needs met
The extent of trauma’s impact is contingent upon how distressing you perceived the situation during its occurrence. Two people may interpret the same circumstance in very different ways. Types of trauma are not comparable, and all stem from states of affairs where you felt unsafe or uncared for. The way you interpret a situation can depend on many pre existing factors: Trauma can be passed down through generations, experienced in utero passed through the stress of a mother, and picked up from childhood.
Generational trauma is when the symptoms of trauma are passed down from generation to generation. When emotional and psychological imprints are carried down from your parents and unconsciously transmitted to you, patterns of pain,addiction and mental health challenges are also passed. As you pick up on the stress of the traumatic environment, you internalize your parent’s coping mechanisms from their unresolved wounds. You can still feel its effects even if you have not experienced the traumatic experience itself.
In utero trauma
A mother can pass down trauma to her unborn child during pregnancy through a process known as prenatal or intergenerational transmission of trauma. This phenomenon is rooted in various factors, including the mother’s stress levels, emotions, and biological changes during pregnancy.
During childhood, your brain developed narratives as a way to comprehend the world and fill in gaps when faced with misunderstandings or lack of information about actual events. As a matter of survival, you internalize and project bad situations onto yourself. This allows you to feel more in control and creates the story “I am responsible.” If you are in control, you believe you can dictate more predictable and seemingly safe outcomes.
Trauma is not what happens to us, it’s what happens inside us.” — Dr. Gabor Maté
Overwhelm and fragmentation
According to psychologist Richard Schwartz, creator of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), when you experience trauma, the overwhelm of your experience outweighs the capacity of your core self to process it. Fragmentation is a protective mechanism to cope with overwhelming experiences and emotions, creating subparts. Each part serves a purpose in maintaining your safety. Most people have some form of each of the following parts:
Traumatic experiences often generate vulnerable and wounded parts, known as “exiles” in IFS. These exiles carry your emotions, memories, and beliefs related to the trauma, and they tend to be isolated from the rest of your core self to prevent them from overwhelming your everyday functioning.
Let’s consider a person named Alex who experienced childhood trauma due to consistent emotional neglect from his caregivers. Alex was often left alone for extended periods during his childhood without emotional support or validation. As a result, the younger, wounded part of Alex, which carries the pain of feeling neglected and abandoned, becomes an Exile.
When your Exile part is in protection mode, you may have intense emotional reactions from past traumas. This occurrence may lead to behaviors like isolation, avoidance, or defensive responses to protect you from re-experiencing the pain.
In response to the Exiles, other parts known as managers emerge to maintain control and prevent the re-emergence of overwhelming emotions and memories. Managers often operate from a place of hyper-vigilance and work diligently to keep the person safe from potential triggers and threats.
Managers in IFS are proactive parts that try to maintain control and prevent the Exile part from overwhelming the individual with emotions. They may exhibit behaviors like perfectionism, emotional suppression, or imposing strict rules to keep emotions in check and avoid vulnerability.
Firefighter parts, also known as emergency responders, emerge in response to the Exiles and Managers when the core self can no longer contain overwhelming emotions. These parts attempt to distract, numb, or dissociate from the pain through self-destructive behaviors, substance use, or other avoidance strategies.
The emergence of these different parts is a way for your core self to cope with traumatic experiences and protect you from being overwhelmed by the intense emotions associated with the trauma. While the goal of each part is to protect you, these parts operate on a subconscious and preverbal level and may not always make sense to you in your day-to-day life and in relation to your conscious goals.
Frequently “the Exile” “the Firefighter” and “the Manager” disagree on the best ways to keep you safe. Over time, these protective parts can lead to internal conflicts, thought distortions, unhelpful belief systems and disrupt your overall well-being. Their protection methods can be detrimental, manifesting as such as:
Physical Symptoms of Trauma:
- GI distress
- Compromised immune systems
Emotional and Cognitive Symptoms of Trauma:
- Anxiety and depression
- Difficulty concentrating
- Self-loathing and Shame
- Behavioral activities
- Unhealthy relationship patterns
- Excessive Drug and Alcohol Use
- Over Eating
- Excessive Risk-taking
Treating the Trauma Not the Symptoms
“we have to move the memory of the trauma — not the symptoms of it.” Colleen Clark, Come Passion: The Soulful ART of Healing Trauma (p.198)
All the symptoms and behaviors mentioned above are coping mechanisms linked to trauma, representing the mind and body’s protective response. While your core self might experience suffering due to these symptoms, feeling frustrated and trapped, it’s essential to explore the reasons behind the patterns of anxiety, depression, avoidance, and other mental health challenges or undesirable behaviors. By delving into the origins of these patterns, you can gain insight into why they emerged in the first place. Understanding these coping mechanisms can pave the way for healing and finding healthier ways to navigate life’s challenges.
A trauma-informed therapist understands that when dealing with trauma, the focus should be on addressing the root cause of the trauma itself rather than just attempting to alleviate or suppress the symptoms that arise as a result of the trauma. Instead of simply managing the symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or flashbacks, the idea is to work through the traumatic experiences, understand their impact on you and find ways to heal and cope effectively.
ART combines elements from different therapeutic modalities, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to examine unhelpful beliefs and thought distortions, bilateral eye movements to help with relaxation and cognitive reframing, and guided imagery to create a comprehensive and rapid healing process. This reprocessing promotes resolution, allowing the traumatic memories to be stored appropriately in the brain without the emotional charge that once accompanied them. As a result, individuals often experience a significant reduction in trauma-related symptoms and find relief from the emotional burden of their past experiences.
So whether you believe you’re suffering from “Big T” or “Little T” trauma, all your experiences are valid, and life-changing relief is possible. Find an ART therapist today to get to the root of your trauma.