What is Big T Trauma?
These days most of us intuitively understand the concept of Big T traumatic events. These are the extraordinary events such as war, natural disasters, and being a victim of violence that lead to a wide range of symptoms associated with intense anxiety, depression and shock or numbness. I use the word extra-ordinary not just because these events a rare, for most of us at least, but because they are outside the range of our ordinary ability to cope and regulate our emotions.
Big T traumas are the ones that would be disturbing to anyone. People who have experienced these types of events often suffer with acute stress and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Big T trauma can involve a single event or a chronic, repetitive series of events, but they are the kind of events that common sense dictates would be hard to handle without some sort of emotional distress.
- Experiencing Symptoms:
- Witnessing, experiencing, or being confronted with an extraordinary traumatic event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror (or agitation in children) during the event and result in symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal afterward.
- Re-experiencing Symptoms:
- Intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or sensations
- Avoidance Symptoms:
- Avoiding objects, places, or activities that are reminders of the trauma
- Emotional numbness
- Guilt, depression, anxiety
- Reduced interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Inability to remember parts of the trauma
- Hyperarousal Symptoms:
- Being jumpy or easily started
- Feeling stressed, tense or on edge
- Sleep problems like trouble falling or staying asleep, or difficulty allowing yourself to sleep due fear of the nightmares.
- Moodiness or anger outbursts
What is Little t Trauma?
Little t traumas are the ones that are harder to recognize, as are their impact on you. These are the experiences that might be traumatic for one person but not necessarily another. These are the daily hurts that occur across time and build on each other. They’re the ones that not only might others not recognize for the traumas they are, you might not recognize why you’re feeling stressed or emotional either. It’s not how the triggering event compares to what someone else has experienced that makes it a trauma; it’s defined as a trauma because of your own emotional experience of it.
Little t traumas are the ones that trigger you. They’re the events that cause ongoing stress, anxiety, depression, or problems in your marriage and relationships. It’s as if you have a button on your body and when it gets pushed, you go to a qualitatively different state of being. Your body either revs up or shuts down. Your feelings are more intense than seems to fit the situation and might be more similar to the feelings of a 5-year-old than a 50-year old. That’s because the hot button is attached to an old hurt, or many old hurts.
For some, the Little t hurts involve the kind of response we try to stuff down, but the hurts re-emerge some time later, when the button is pushed again. Others may respond to the discomfort by some sort of impulsive, knee-jerk reaction and may take it out on someone else. If you are this type of responder, those are the reactions that you have come to regret, the ones that you end up sabotaging yourself with or causing problems for those you love.
|Big T Traumas
- Childhood sexual or physical abuse
- Car wrecks
- Crime victimization
- Witnessing violence or death
- Domestic Violence
|Little t Traumas
- Emotional Abuse
- Failure Experiences
- Phobia related experiences
- Learning problems
- Stress at work or school
- Lack of empathy from others
- Minor accidents
What is Relational Trauma?
Relational trauma can be either Big T or Little t trauma that occurred within the context of a relationship and is now triggered by the interactions you have in your current relationships. Relational trauma that is very intense, occurs for long periods of time, or happened in childhood has a bigger impact and sets the stage for life struggles with depression, anxiety, stress, and relationship and marriage problems.
The younger the age at the time of the relational trauma, the greater the potential impact due to the effect on the attachment, or emotional bond, with the primary caregiver. This is because the quality of attachment actually affects the developing brain of the child. With a healthy attachment the child comes to expect a sense of security, being valued, and enjoyment from relationships; whereas, with an unhealthy attachment the child comes to expect insecurity, being devalued, and stress from relationships.
These early attachment experiences begin to lay the foundation for our future self-esteem and how to be social with others. It’s where we begin to learn about interpersonal boundaries and what our role in a relationship is. It’s where we learn how to recognize our social and emotional needs, and how to fulfill them.
Whether it’s with the primary caregiver, family members, teachers, friends, or romantic or marriage partners, it’s in relationships that we form beliefs about ourselves and our world. When those relationships are infused with Big T or Little t trauma, our belief systems become distorted.
|Examples of Relational Trauma
- Attachment Problems
- Being Bullied
- Being Shamed
- Drama Trauma
- Discovering infidelity or sexual addiction
- Marital Rape
- Domestic Violence
- Abuse or neglect
- Verbal, Emotional, Physical or Sexual Abuse
- Addition in the family
- A child taking care of a parent’s feelings
What is the Mind-Body Connection in Trauma?
It was once believed that our emotions were associated with specific locations in our brain, primarily the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. We now know that emotions, and therefore emotional pain, is also held in our bodies and connects to the emotional centers of the brain via vast, interrelated neural networks.
The limbic system is ground zero for our emotional life, in addition to playing an important role in memory processing. However, the limbic system has a clear priority – survival. When threat is perceived, the limbic system overrides other nonessential functions of the brain, including higher level reasoning, and we go into survival mode. It’s as if our body has been hijacked and emotions and sensations associated with danger become primary.
The functions of the brain and body are intertwined and together they act like an amazingly sophisticated surveillance system that collect and make sense of information from our environment. Input from all of our senses - sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste - is used to determine how we interpret and response to our experiences.
The stronger the sensory information is, the richer our experiences are and the more we remember them. Big impact experiences are more likely to imprint their images on the emotional system and our memory. That’s why a particular smell, sound, or place can trigger a memory of something you thought you had long since forgotten or maybe never even realized had been stored into your memory. If the sensations associated with the formation of the original event were strong, the memory of the event may be accompanied by a strong sensory experience. Have you ever heard a breakup song playing, maybe the one you listened to after the loss of your first puppy love, and felt the same stab of sadness you felt back then? For a brief moment your shoulders probably slump, you feel a sinking in your gut, a tightness in your chest, and possibly even a sting in your heart. In a way, you just re-lived a brief, scaled-down version of that event in your life.
So what happens in trauma? Humans are hardwired to respond to threat with a fight, flight, or freeze response. It doesn’t matter if the threat is physical or emotional. It doesn’t even matter if the threat is real or imagined, the anticipation of danger can put you into survival mode. The limbic system sets off a series of events that tells your nervous system to prepare your body for defensive action: either stand and fight, get the heck out of there or, if escape seems impossible, freeze and lay low. Fight, flight or freeze – these are your survival reflexes.
The sensations that arise in your body in these states can lie dormant for many years, only to re-emerge if that memory is triggered. For example, I was trapped in a fire as a child. Ultimately I got out with only minor injuries and no one else was seriously physically hurt. Anyone who has lived through a fire can tell you that for months afterward your body leaks smoke. For as much as a year later if I coughed, sneezed or perspired, I smelled like smoke. The combination of body and smoke has a very distinct, very unusual smell. It’s much more akin to damp, cooling ash than the smoke that accompanies fire – very specific and very rare.
Now this happened many, many years ago. I’ve never had a fear of fires, never had nightmares, never been overly vigilant about taking extra precautions. But to this day when I get a whiff of that particular smell I immediately respond with a mixture of anxiety and sadness. I very distinctly feel those emotions in my chest, along with a tingling sensation and general sense of my lungs being activated and needing to just focus on breathing, followed by an awareness of all my family lost that night and the long, tough rebuilding years that came afterward - all of that triggered by a little smell. My body remembers.
The same thing happens to you. When the fight or flight response is triggered and your body gears up for action, your nervous system does not return to a place of equilibrium until that survival response is completed. When your survival behaviors are thwarted in some way - for example not being able to fight off an attacker because he was much bigger than you – it gets frozen in your nervous system. What may look like passivity on the outside is actually your nervous system going into an active state of freeze. It’s the equivalent of pushing on your body’s brake and accelerator at the same time.
While more traditional therapy will be important in helping you change the unhealthy habits you may have developed in relationships because of the impact of trauma, talk therapy alone is generally unable to allow you to access trauma that is stored at the more primitive areas of the nervous system. Thus, therapies that integrate the natural healing power of your own brain and body, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing®, can be powerful tools in your trauma recovery.
How Do You Work With Trauma?
I am trained in the use of EMDR, Somatic Experiencing®, and Post-Induction Therapy and use a flexible blend of these techniques to meet your unique trauma and relationship profile needs.
What is EMDR?
Read more about EMDR here...
What is Somatic Experiencing®?
Therapists who treat trauma have long known that “the body remembers” trauma. In fact, if you have ever felt triggered then you know that the body is activated when your hot button is pushed, even if you’re not really sure what the button is about or how it got pushed.
Like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing® works with your natural brain processes to promote healing. It is a naturalistic therapy for releasing the unresolved Big T, Little t, and relational trauma that is stored in your body. Somatic Experiencing® was developed as a therapy for healing trauma by Dr. Peter Levine, an internationally recognized expert on trauma and stress consultant for NASA during the space shuttle development.
Somatic Experiencing® works by bypassing the higher cognitive centers of the brain and working with sensations that are associated with the primitive part of the brain by way of the Autonomic Nervous System. It uses body awareness and body sensations to gently and gradually release the emotion and energy from those body memories.
Unlike EMDR, which may target the worst part of the trauma first, Somatic Experiencing® works from the outside edges inward to the core of the trauma. While the pace may be slower than with EMDR, the discharge of the traumatic activation from your nervous system can be very powerful. With this release your nervous system can return to equilibrium and healing can take place.
What is Post Induction Therapy?
I was trained by Pia Mellody and use her developmental model for dealing with relational trauma. Pia is a pioneer in the recovery field and an internationally recognized expert on trauma, addiction, codependency, and relationships and marriage.
Trauma, especially trauma that occurred in childhood relationships, often sets the stage for codependency in adult relationships. Post-Induction therapy focuses on identifying the five core symptoms that result from developmental and relationship trauma: problems with self-worth, boundaries, staying connected to your own reality, dependency issues, and moderation. The therapy targets reducing the unresolved shame associated with your trauma and incorporating new relational skills to heal the core symptoms and create greater balance in your life.
If you would like to learn more about how trauma is affecting you or how therapy can help, please contact me.