Written by: Kaycee Beglau, PsyD
Understanding and Defining Different Types of Trauma
These days it seems there is a misconception, or even a “watering down” of what the word trauma actually means. In everyday conversations, the word “traumatic” can be used in the same way as words like “stressful” or “upsetting.” For example, we have all seen the dramatized, reality tv-show star say something to the effect of, “Finding out my wrinkle cream has been discontinued has been really traumatic for me.” But, if you have lived through a traumatic experience, you know on a deep level that trauma and stress are not the same thing.
On the other hand, when most people think about trauma, they often think about those who have survived a natural disaster, been physically or sexually assaulted, or been exposed to war or combat. Understandably, these kinds of experiences can be extremely traumatic for a lot of people who go through them. However, a person does not have to have undergone an experience as obviously profound as these for it to cause a traumatic reaction or response.
Some trauma experts like to distinguish between “big-T” traumas and “little-t” traumas. Big-T traumas are what most people typically think of, as I just described. They create a terrifying sense of being completely overwhelmed, are often sudden, and leave the person’s life or sense of well-being feeling physically threatened.
Examples of “Big-T traumas”
Little-t traumas, on the other hand, may not be life threatening or as horrifying or terrifying as the typical list of qualifying traumatic events. Nevertheless, many kinds of events or experiences can be traumatic even if there was no threat of physical injury or death. These types of traumas include experiences that threatened the person’s sense of psychological integrity or well-being.
Examples of “little-t” traumas
Of course, neither of these lists are exhaustive and represent only a small fraction of life events or experiences that a person can experience as being potentially traumatic. Big-T traumas, by nature, are very severe. Yet, it also makes sense to me that these less obvious forms of trauma (i.e., little-t traumas) can have a profoundly traumatizing effect on people and can create many of the same post-traumatic responses as the Big-T traumas. This becomes more and more true with experiences that are chronic, repetitive, or having survived multiple types of traumas, as this tends to have a “cumulative” traumatizing effect.
Even if what you have experienced has not been mentioned in this blog, it does not mean you have not suffered a trauma or that what you have experienced did not result in post-traumatic reactions. What these different types of trauma have in common is the lasting impact they can have on people, which includes experiences such as being emotionally, physically, and mentally overwhelmed and feeling shocked, horrified, helpless, damaged, or fractured in some deeply profound way.
The important thing is not to focus on what type(s) of trauma(s) you have survived and to try to quantify it in some way, but to recognize the ways you have been affected and what all of this means to you. There is hope for recovery, and it begins with recognizing and coming to terms with what has occurred and the many ways it has impacted your sense of self, your experience of the world, your perspectives, your ability to connect with others, and to engage in a quality of life that feels personally meaningful.