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  • Lemuel Tan

BIG T TRAUMA and little t trauma

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Trauma is more than a terrorist attack, a motor vehicle accident or even a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma is fundamentally feeling a sense of threat and a perceived lack of safety. This means that trauma can be different for everyone. Trauma cannot be quantified, categorised by the impact. Trauma is about the impact rather than the trigger or cause. This means that it is unnecessary for you to personally or directly engage a negative experience, just witnessing an event that makes you feel unsafe may be considered trauma.


What is Big T trauma?

In general, it is the typical trauma that we commonly think of such as major catastrophic events, sexual assault, near death experience, war, terrorist threats, and others. Those who have gone through a Big T trauma may experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms such as re-experiencing the event (flashbacks, dreams, intrusive thoughts/memories), avoidance behaviours (staying away from certain places, events, people or objects that remind them of the event, or avoiding thoughts or feelings about the event), increase in arousal and reactivity (feeling easily scared, tense or on edge, struggling to have good sleep or experiencing anger outburst or becoming emotional) as well as cognition and mood difficulties (memory difficulties, negative thoughts about self or the world, guilt & shame, loss of interest and positive emotion). Some may experience on-going Big T trauma such as abuse or domestic violence which unsurprisingly increases the chances of PTSD symptoms.


What is little t trauma?

It is literary everything traumatic that is not Big T trauma but makes you feel threatened and unsafe. Little t traumas are notoriously difficult to identify because unlike its big brother, it is more subtle and less flamboyant. It is easier to expect a person to be paranoid and angry because they have just been taken hostage during a terrorist incident (Big T trauma), however, somehow, it is harder to accept a person being paranoid and angry at a similar degree due to a history of childhood emotional neglect (on-going little t traumas). In fact, the world would often expect them to “grow out of it” or “just get stronger” and at times seeing their behaviour as attention seeking or manipulative. Trauma trained clinicians may even consider childhood emotional neglect as one if not multiple Big T traumas.


For young people, little t trauma may mean that they are being bullied with no safe place to go to or when they are expected to do something that they sincerely cannot do and feel scared, hopeless and helpless. Physical, emotional and psychological neglect are all forms of little t traumas (or even Big T trauma). The challenges of little t trauma is its accumulative effect that often goes under the radar. One small t trauma is unlikely to create a major distress, however, multiple compounding small t traumas may impact emotional functioning and well-being. This is not to say that young people should not be experiencing challenges or adversities in life. In fact, resilience comes when there is both the challenge and the space for safety present. This is similar for adults who are in a highly stressful environment, may it be at home or work. It is often the unseen little t traumas that pushes someone over the edge. The lack of trust, acknowledgement, acceptance and encouragement becomes a breeding ground for potential small t traumas.

It is important to know that experiencing a Big T trauma does not automatically mean a diagnosis of PTSD, nor does having multiple little t traumas mean that you are doomed for life. The human being is a highly resilient entity and your body will find ways to cope. It is in the coping that 'helpful' and 'unhelpful' coping strategies develop. Some may shut down, some may feel fearful and some may act out aggressively towards others. The behaviours are the symptoms of the trauma, a traumatic response.


Many often get misled by the different diagnosis or languages of trauma. Some may argue that this is not trauma because I am on X medication with a diagnosis of X. What matters is the impact of the negative experience in your life and the lack of safety and control. If you think it is a trauma reaction, it is most probably a trauma reaction. Trauma experiences are highly subjective and can manifest in a multitude of ways – fear, avoidance, bodily sensations, mood changes, loss of interest, hyper-arousal, hypo-arousal, etc. Trauma is trauma is trauma. It deserves both compassion and empathy. Remember you are only stuck and not broken and that you are a trauma survivor.


Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.


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