Big “T” Trauma vs. Little “t” Trauma: What’s the Difference?

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Regardless of its magnitude, a traumatic event may be extremely upsetting, resulting in various physiological and behavioral issues in those who have survived or witnessed it.

However, some traumatic events are more severe than others. Mental health experts agree that trauma does come in different sizes, differentiating big “T” vs. little “t” trauma.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a person’s emotional reaction to an upsetting experience or traumatic event.

A traumatic event is a highly distressing experience that exceeds a person’s ability to cope with stress, causing emotional, mental, and bodily harm.

Certain traumatic situations do not result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But depending on the severity of the trauma, many people who have been through a traumatic experience may still have trauma symptoms decades after the event.

Both big “T” and little “t” trauma can trigger PTSD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other issues.

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Understanding the Different Forms of Trauma

There are three types of trauma:

  • Acute trauma (single trauma) is caused by a single stressful or frightening incident.
  • Chronic trauma (repeated trauma) arises from prolonged or recurrent exposure to traumatic situations.
  • Complex (persistent) trauma is frequently the result of several traumatic events.

Acute trauma is big “T” vs. little “t” trauma which refers to events that fall into the category of chronic complex trauma.

Big “T” Trauma vs. Little “t” Trauma: What’s the Difference?

The term big “T” trauma involves alarming events that most people consider traumatic, such as the violent death of a loved one. Little “t” traumas include events that people experience as traumatic on a personal level. Some examples of little “t” trauma involve a divorce, the death of a pet, or emotional abuse in a toxic relationship.

Big “T” trauma most commonly results in post-traumatic stress disorder because it involves sexual violence, serious injuries, or death threats. PTSD resulting from big “T” trauma can occur even in people who have only witnessed a traumatic event and were not directly harmed.

On the other hand, little “t” trauma involves highly distressing traumatic events that impact a person’s life and well-being but don’t have to trigger PTSD.

Examples of Big “T” Trauma

People or natural causes can create Big “T” trauma.

Examples of large or big “T” trauma caused by humans involve:

  • Physical violence
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • Torture
  • Car Accident
  • War
  • Terrorist attack
  • Witnessing someone else’s harm

Big “T” traumatic events caused by natural causes include:

  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Tsunamis
  • Tornadoes
  • Hurricanes
  • Wildfires
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How Big “T” Trauma Affects Your Mind and Body?

When you are stressed out, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases cortisol and adrenaline stress chemicals. The surge of these hormones in the body assists you in dealing with stress and escaping danger by triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze response.” 

So, for example, your breathing and heart rate increase, focus improves, eyesight and hearing sharpen, and more.

The purpose of increased stress hormones is to give the body the energy it needs to deal with stress.

Significant traumatic events have profound consequences because they push a person beyond their comfort zone, profoundly affecting their well-being, self-esteem, and sense of security. So, some people who have been through or witnessed a “big T” trauma can’t get over it. They “freeze” – stay stuck in the aftermath, developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the ANS response protects us during a traumatic event, the brain may send us unhelpful messages that keep our minds and bodies in constant protective mode even after the trauma.

As a result, post-traumatic stress disorder manifests as reactions such as:

  • Reliving the experience through flashbacks and nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble focusing
  • Guilt and shame
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Aches and pains
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

However, capital “T” trauma may also provoke “Fear, Flag, or Faint” responses.

Fright: When a person is terrified, they may feel very helpless, making it hard to think clearly.

Flag: The bodily processes begin to shut down in response to overwhelming stress, which results in emotional numbness.

Faint: A person may faint in response to trauma in some cases.

What is Little t” Trauma

Not everyone has the same capacity to handle stress.

For example, while the breakup of a long-term relationship may be a profoundly upsetting event for one individual, it does not have to cause emotional distress for another.

Also, little “t” trauma involves events that do not necessarily have to be physically violent or life-threatening. However, these events are often long-lasting or persistent, causing emotional harm like capital “T” trauma does.

Examples of Little “t” Trauma

Little “t” trauma may involve the following events:

  • Divorce
  • Ongoing health concerns
  • Non-life-threatening injuries
  • Ongoing financial issues
  • Emotional abuse
  • Harassment
  • Bullying

How Can Little “t” Trauma Affect You?

Little “t” trauma is harmful because it frequently involves repeated or prolonged exposure. As a result, understanding the impact of trauma on a given individual is more important than focusing on the traumatic incident itself.

Micro-traumas can manifest through symptoms comparable to those of big “T” trauma. These frequently include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Isolation and avoidance
  • Irritability and rage
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Guilt and shame
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

You Don’t Have to Suffer Trauma in Silence

Unfortunately, trauma survivors are frequently concerned about being judged once the truth is revealed. As a result, they often feel trapped by guilt and shame, which can lead to mental health problems like anxiety, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But help is available. Trauma-focused therapy or coaching can help you understand and process emotions that develop as a result of trauma, increase resilience, reduce your symptoms, and educate you on how to manage them.

The most successful PTSD treatments involve Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works for trauma, and Trauma Risk Management (TRiM).

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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