Updated: May 15
Trauma isn’t necessarily catastrophic. When we think of trauma, most people think of the emotional effects of a terrible event such as war, a serious accident, violence, abuse or a natural disaster. These are what some might classify as the most profound or debilitating of experiences, but are not reflective of the whole picture. Trauma comes in different forms.
In many ways, it can be said that trauma is an inevitable part of the human experience.
By definition, trauma can be described as a situation or event that has elicited an emotional response and disrupted a sense of safety. Our sense of safety, doesn’t just relate to our physical safety and life threatening situations - it also relates to our psyche, and ego-based threats.
We all have a need to feel secure in who we are, in our identity and worth as human beings. We also want to feel secure in knowing that others accept us too. We desire that our interactions with the world and others feel reliable and safe. When our ego based world is threatened, it can result in feelings of insecurity and helplessness. And let's face it, the ego can be threatened quite easily…
Threatening experiences, may include: abandonment, rejection, ridicule, bullying, repeated put-downs, humiliation, feeling different to others, significant disappointment, significant failure, isolation or loneliness, the withdrawal of love, infidelity, being ignored or ostracised, the loss of significant friendships or a relationship, divorce, financial difficulty, being exposed to high levels of conflict and so on…
When we accumulate these less pronounced (but not trivial) experiences, they can result in what has been classified as small 't' trauma.
Because small ‘t’ traumas relate to common experiences, they can be easily shrugged off or are simply not considered to be the cause of presenting issues for individuals (even where individuals are facing emotional dysfunction or not coping).
Small ‘t’ traumas are events that challenge one’s capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning. Large ‘T’ traumas relate to extraordinary or significant events that result in powerlessness or a lack of environmental control. Large 'T' traumas commonly correlate with psychopathology such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Predisposing factors (belief systems, values, perceptions and distress tolerances) can also play a role in the level to which an individual will develop a traumatic response, as do coping mechanisms. For instance, maladaptive strategies such as avoidance or denial can increase the likelihood of a traumatic response in individuals.
Is it really trauma?
Small ‘t’ traumas are often minimised or rationalised by the person experiencing them because the experience isn’t seen to be noteworthy. Individuals might feel like they are over-reacting or they may shame themselves for thinking that a certain experience has had a negative emotional impact. Because small ‘t’ traumas relate to common experiences, they can be easily shrugged off.
It's important to recognise that not all difficult situations in life are traumatic. It's also important to acknowledge that we all have pain wounds and trigger points and when these wounds consistently interrupt or negatively impact on our ability to move forward in life, it's likely there is a small 't' trauma at play that requires some further exploration.
In many ways, it can be said that trauma is an inevitable part of the human experience. Life certainly throws many experiences our way and these range from difficult and painful to joyful and healing. Perhaps we cannot escape trauma? However you view it, our wounds and painful experiences can ironically come with benefits.
Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)
PTG points to the notion that in order to grow, one must endure some form of challenge. PTG is thought to result, not as a direct upshot of traumatic events, but in response to the struggle that ensues traumatic circumstances. As Elizabeth Gilbert puts it "I've never seen any life transformation that didn't begin with the person in question finally getting tired of their own bullshit." In other words, struggle may be a necessity for deeper levels of awareness to occur. This in turn, encourages positive change.
The theory of shattered assumptions (Janoff-Bulman, 2010) highlights the understanding that trauma destroys the idealistic expectations individuals hold about the world and themselves, particularly those developed in the formative years of childhood. It is hypothesised that once these assumptions are broken, individuals are compelled to rebuild their lives by making meaning of what has occurred in a constructive light. Cue growth.
In order to grow, one must endure some form of challenge.
Curiously, PTG has been shown to occur more readily in those with an internal locus of control (I can control my life) versus those who lean towards an external locus of control (I cannot control my life e.g. I am at the whim of fate, a god, the government, other people or outside influences).