The Many Faces of Trauma
Updated: Aug 11
"That was traumatic."
"This is triggering."
The idea of trauma has become so pervasive in our culture that many of us use the words associated with trauma to describe our daily lives. However, there is often some truth beneath the surface of these statements. Small, unpleasant, upsetting incidents can have traumatic effects on us. In fact, these little moments of discomfort or fear add up to big impacts on our daily lives. Life is trauma. So, we need to understand our own responses to trauma and process and heal in healthy ways. In this blog we’ll talk a little more about the many types of trauma, how they impact us, and how you can work to process the trauma and lead a more satisfying life. If you need help working through any type of trauma, don’t hesitate to reach out to Cedar Counseling & Wellness to learn more about trauma-informed therapy.
So, What Really Is Trauma?
Trauma is often thought about in relation to extreme violence, death, war, and other highly traumatic, life-threatening experiences, especially when linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of course these situations are traumatic and require thoughtful, intentional processing and healing often with the help of a therapist. However, these are not the only types of trauma. In addition to the situations people often think of as traumatic, there are also complex traumas that occur during childhood, less severe traumatic experiences that can have a cumulative effect over time, as well as potentially negative effects of witnessing traumatic events.
Is Big T and Little t Trauma a Real Thing?
We recommend being cautious when using these designations, as they can promote comparison and may result in invalidating your own trauma if it's "just" Little t. Big T traumas are typically more intense and acute, such as: a near fatal car accident, house fire, combat experience, rape, physical abuse, etc. Little “t” traumas are still highly distressing events, though more commonplace and less acute, such as: non-life-threatening injuries, emotional abuse, death of a pet, bullying or harassment, and loss of significant relationships.
All kinds of things can have a traumatic effect on your brain. Think of the different ways that people heal from physical injuries. Some people have a cut or bruise that only minimally impacts them, heals quickly, and doesn’t leave a lasting mark. Another person may have the same injury, but they have an infection, bruise more deeply, or a scar is left behind. Our bodies process injuries in myriad ways. Our minds process injuries differently too. While some people experience a mildly traumatic event (little t trauma) and can move on easily, others aren’t able to process the experience. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. We’re all different and recognizing when we need help and allowing ourselves to seek that help is the first step toward healing.
What Is Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma, also known as developmental trauma, occurs in childhood. This kind of trauma may involve consistent exposure to traumas like an unstable home environment, a parent who is unable to care for them properly, neglect, physical violence, witnessed traumatic events, and a range of other experiences. If children don’t receive therapy when they’re younger, complex trauma may not be recognized as a trauma response until individuals seek therapy for others concerns that arise. What manifests in adult life as difficulty in relationships, high levels of anxiety, poor emotional intelligence, and even physical health concerns may actually turn out to be unprocessed complex trauma from childhood.
What Is Secondary Trauma?
Secondary trauma is a response to hearing about, discussing, or witnessing trauma and its aftermath. This secondary exposure to traumatic events causes many of the same adverse effects as direct traumatic experience. 911 dispatchers, first responders, teachers, and healthcare professionals are examples of people who may be more vulnerable to experiencing secondary trauma. Even therapists who partner with individuals to overcome trauma are at risk for developing secondary traumatic response.
How do I Start to Feel Better?
Therapy is a good option for trauma. We’re therapists, so of course we're a bit biased! However, many people feel too overwhelmed by the current effects of trauma to seek therapy. Because trauma and trauma treatment is so unique to specific individuals, we hesitate to offer "one size fits all" tips and tricks to managing trauma outside of a therapeutic environment. That being said, here are a couple things you can do to feel better in the moment:
Monitor your breathing – by paying attention to your breathing and taking deep, slow breaths when you feel a strong trauma response, you’ll increase the amount of oxygen in your body, slow your heart rate, and become more physically aware of your current surroundings, pulling you out of your trauma response.
Grounding -- Grounding brings you out of your head and back into your physical environment (in the present moment). Grounding is a highly portable exercise that can be taken everywhere. To do this exercise, you use your 5 senses to connect with the environment around you. Look around and ask yourself: What can you see, taste, touch, hear, smell?
Prioritize self care - making yourself a priority in the midst of coping with trauma is difficult, but so important. Whether this means engaging in a creative endeavor, journaling, spending time in nature, or making the time to seek help, you are your greatest asset.
Let’s Talk Trauma
If you’re interested in taking steps to heal from trauma of any kind, we’re here for you. We have a knowledgeable therapist, Caroline Fowler, who has years of advanced training and experience working specifically with individuals who are managing the effects of all types of trauma. If you’re ready to start making a change for the better, Caroline is here to help. Simply get in touch with our Annapolis team to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs and goals for therapy. We look forward to hearing from you soon.