The experience of trauma can vary significantly from individual to individual, especially considering the prevalence of different kinds of trauma. However, at its core, trauma results from the experience of distressing events that deliver an overload of stress that an individual is not able to cope with, creating the potential for long-term negative outcomes. Trauma is that resultant damage done to an individual’s mind and/or body.
It is important to understand that just the experience of a potentially traumatic event does not necessarily mean a person will experience psychological trauma. Each person has unique capacities for handling stress along with their perspectives and environmental support that may or may not help them integrate the experience emotionally. In this way, we must approach each individual with compassion with the intent to better understand how a traumatic event may have impacted them personally, and to be mindful of any assumptions of the way an experience may or may not cause traumatization.
When we think of trauma, we often think solely of significant, life-changing acute events, and forget about smaller stressors we may experience on a day to day basis. For clarification, trauma is often classified in two distinct ways: Big T and little t trauma.
Big T Trauma
Most associated with PTSD
Includes significantly difficult specific events
May include events such as serious injury, death, or sexual assault
Extreme events like a natural disaster, war, violence
Little T Trauma
Includes all other personally stressful events that don’t fall into Big T classification
May include any event that causes stress, fear, discomfort, or a feeling of helplessness
Commonly includes the loss of a friend, difficult breakups, the death of a pet, minor injuries, losing a job, or changing schools
May develop from ongoing situations such as anxiety from financial troubles, relationships, emotional abuse, or bullying
No matter the cause or type, trauma can have long-lasting negative effects on an individual’s mental health and ability to handle emotions or relationships. While Little T Trauma may not meet the criteria for PTSD, the effects can be seriously influential on an individual’s psyche, especially if experienced during key developmental periods.
Trauma that occurs early in life can be particularly harmful. Regardless of type, Big T or Little T, extraneous stressors on developing children often cause long-lasting negative consequences on a child’s mental health, even lasting into adulthood. Common examples of childhood trauma include bullying, accidents, and parental issues including emotional or physical abuse. Even dysfunctional family dynamics such as ongoing domestic violence or negligence, when repeated over time, cause significant emotional damage to the child.
Childhood is an extremely important time in human development. The brain still has a long way to go to mature physically, as well as the ability to respond and deal with emotions and stress. Experiencing trauma early on in this process causes damage that imprints itself into the patterns of a developing person.
Another example of childhood trauma includes relational trauma, which occurs when something disrupts a child’s normal sense of boundaries and safety within their family. While purposeful neglect or abuse are commonly imagined as the culprit, relational trauma can be caused by a spectrum of parental styles that influence future attachment styles in children.
Many approaches exist to treat the symptoms of an individual’s past trauma or PTSD. One such treatment method, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was created to reduce the symptoms of PTSD. However, it has developed into a remarkable treatment for trauma itself. EMDR allows for the processing of stored traumatic memories, leading to reduced stress and the reformation of cognitive and emotional dysfunctional patterns.
Many people make use of a variety of approaches to deal with and heal the pain caused by traumatic experiences. EMDR therapy has been shown to alleviate distress in a way that typically takes years of psychotherapy to accomplish. It does so through the use of bilateral stimulation, such as tracking eye movement from left to right, while experiencing short doses of a targeted traumatic memory. This combination of stimulus allows for desensitization of the traumatic experience and the reprocessing of new beliefs and behaviors.
Unfortunately, it is common for trauma to co-exist with one or several mental health disorders. Common PTSD symptoms include flashbacks or distressing thoughts, which often heighten anxiety or even lead to the development of panic disorder. Untreated trauma may lead to avoidance patterns and low mood, creating cycles of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Re-experiencing symptoms such as nightmares may lead to an individual avoiding sleep, causing sleep disorders that further exacerbate their health.
A strong correlation exists between experiencers of trauma and substance abuse. It is known that trauma often affects the ability to handle emotions. Many individuals with untreated trauma experience difficult symptoms of PTSD such as frightening thoughts which could understandably lead to anxiety. It is no wonder that substance often follows such a chain of events as individuals seek ways to cope with their emotional disturbances.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, causes a variety of symptoms that significantly interfere with an individual’s ability to live their lives. Sufferers of PTSD may be triggered by people or events, causing the mental and physical re-living of a traumatic experience through flashbacks. Intrusive frightening thoughts may be present, and nightmares are common as well. Chronically aroused nervous systems can lead to constant anxiety, difficulty resting, sleep disorders, trouble focusing, and chronic stress. It is not uncommon for PTSD to negatively affect mood and cognition as well. Common symptoms include a sense of isolation or detachment from others, low mood, guilt, negative beliefs, memory loss, and numbness to previously enjoyed activities.