What is Trauma?
A traumatic event is one that is deeply stressful and troubling.. If this overpowers a person’s ability to cope, it can result in feelings of powerlessness, a reduced sense of self and numbed emotions. Trauma could be classified in a few ways – “big T”, “little t, “acute”, “chronic”.
“Big T” trauma is a reaction to a deeply disturbing, life-threatening event or situation. It involves an extraordinary event that threatens a person’s life or bodily integrity. Acute “big T” trauma results from a single traumatic incident such as the death of a loved one, while chronic “big T” trauma is the result of repeated and ongoing trauma, such as abuse or domestic violence.
However, what constitutes trauma might not always be an incident that is deeply disturbing or life-threatening. Any event that results in fear, distress or feelings of powerlessness might constitute as “little t” traumas. “Little t” traumas are events that surpass our ability to cope, which can lead us to feel helpless. Some examples of events that may lead to “little t” trauma are non-life-threatening injuries, interpersonal conflict, bullying, harassment, and a loss of significant relationships. Although these may not seem as life-threatening as the events that usually result in “big T” trauma, both “big T” and “little t” traumas often involve some form of loss of control, abuse of power, helplessness, betrayal, pain, confusion, and loss. The ordinariness of some of these events (i.e. a break-up, bullying, the passing of a loved one) may lead us to overlook their impact. However, as these situations can happen to and affect anyone, it is essential to understand the impact of trauma as any debilitating experience can potentially affect one’s functioning and colour the way one perceives future experiences. Recognising and being aware of the impact of the trauma is essential as it will lead you one step closer to coping with it.
Understanding the Impact of Trauma
There is no single or standard way in which people react to traumatic events. A person may show no noticeable signs of having experienced trauma and yet be experiencing severe emotional reactions or physical symptoms. Common initial reactions to traumatic events include:
- Poor concentration
- Freeze response
- Affected sleep and/or appetite
- Gastrointestinal problems
Trauma can also lead to psychological conditions such as:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Acute Stress Disorder
- Dissociative disorders
- Substance abuse problems
Hence, it is crucial to be on the lookout for signs as trauma can have a worse impact on your well-being and functioning if left unchecked.
How Therapy May Be Helpful
Many people who have experienced a traumatic event minimise or downplay how much the event has affected them. Trauma does not only affect those who meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth edition (DSM-5) criteria for acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. These individuals may still experience symptoms which hinder certain areas of functioning. For instance, this could manifest as challenges in interpersonal relationships or emotional outbursts. The symptoms may be temporary, limited to some contexts, or recurrent.
Any symptoms or patterns you notice that are negatively affecting your everyday life – such as your ability to manage emotional states, or to form and maintain interpersonal relationships, or to hold a job – are worth investigating. You may want to consider visiting a psychologist or a psychotherapist as sessions may prove to be helpful in improving your quality of life. There are many different therapies available that can help you to cope with trauma, such as ‘Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing’ (EMDR) and ‘Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy’ (TF-CBT).
1. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
2. Onderko, K. What Is Trauma? Integrated Listening Systems. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from https://integratedlistening.com/what-is-trauma/