Using ‘Big T’ and ‘Little T’ for Trauma Can Be a Big Mistake

false types of trauma

Some people seem to believe that when it comes to trauma, size matters. We even have terminology that allows us to talk as if some types of trauma are less damaging, less serious, or matter less than others.

Sometimes people will describe someone’s trauma as “Big T (Big Trauma)” or “Little T (Little Trauma)”—and today, I’m calling for an end to this type of nomenclature.

It is harmful to people who live with the aftermath of trauma to have their experiences or feelings minimized. It’s also unhelpful in mental health practice to conceptualize some traumatic events as less or more significant than others. There is a risk that trauma survivors may feel stigmatized by this terminology: “It’s only Little T, so I shouldn’t be so upset.”

No person who has felt impacted by trauma should feel minimized because their trauma seems “smaller” to others than other kinds. We definitely don’t want to do that—ever!

What is “Big T”?

In stereotypical language, Big T describes more dramatic types of trauma: violence, war, murder, rape, robbery, and recurrent sexual or physical abuse. Big T is usually is either a single-incident trauma of vast proportions or something society believes is big – like recurrent sexual or physical abuse. It’s something that’s noticeable; sometimes you read about it in the paper.

What is “Little T”?

Little T stereotypically refers to things that people think are “smaller.” I find the term “Little T” particularly offensive and disturbing. Even though it might be convenient shorthand for less obvious injuries, I think the “little” things trauma does are actually huge! 

Less visible forms of trauma happen with childhood emotional neglect when a parent wasn’t emotionally available. Harder-to-see trauma happens with ongoing developmental abuse, medical issues, or having a parent with mental illness or a substance use disorder. You can’t necessarily “see” the bruises, but these things are just as damaging. They usually happen over the longer term—and they add up!

There Is No Such Thing As “Little Trauma”

Trauma is a fundamental feeling of threat. It’s a perceived lack of safety. And it’s different for everyone. Trauma is more about the impact than the cause; it’s about how the trauma is “remembered” in the body. It is not up to us to judge, or quantify or size up the impact of someone’s trauma. The only person who can do that is the person who feels it.

Bullying can be hugely traumatic. Grief can be hugely traumatic. Postpartum depression, anxiety or other mood disorders can be hugely traumatic. Trauma from embarrassment, betrayal and affairs can leave deep, lasting, tremendous impact. These things might be categorized as “Little T”—but there is no such thing as little trauma. Trauma is trauma is trauma! Like Janina Fisher shows so perfectly in her flip chart, all of these symptoms can represent trauma in someone’s body.

Complex, Developmental, and Recurring Trauma

Having insecure attachment can be traumatic. Trauma occurs when your relationship with your primary attachment figures is insecure or disorganized or avoidant.  When trauma happens early in your life, your nervous system changes. It becomes hyper- (or hypo-) aroused.

When your body gets used to being on alert, the impact of trauma builds up. When your body is used to becoming numb, the impact of trauma builds up.  A person adapts to the body’s state of distress with unhealthy coping skills that function as survival skills. These include dissociation, eating disorders, cutting, drinking, and drug use.

It makes no sense that most developmental or attachment or recurring trauma is classified as “Little T.” There’s nothing little about it! When trauma impacts your nervous system, it can require hard work to keep emotions within the window of tolerance, where you can think and feel at the same time. (This is why I take a mind-body approach to trauma recovery.)

Single Incident Trauma

Two soldiers go off to war. Each sees the exact same disturbing scene. One comes from a fairly securely attached family of origin, while the other comes from a disorganized attachment system. The person with secure attachment has the ability to feel the feelings, deal with the trauma, “ride the wave” of emotions, and has the resources to attend and process the wartime incident pretty quickly.

The other person may develop PTSD because there was no foundation of safety and stabilization to help the person understand and process the horror around the incident. As I describe in the article about EMDR therapy, single incident traumas can often be quicker to resolve because an individual already has a basis of stabilization.

Better Distinctions

Perhaps it’s human nature to want to categorize things or put them into “understandable” buckets. But trauma doesn’t work this way. So let’s stop thinking about it this way!

If we must make distinctions between types of trauma, how about “obvious trauma” or “hidden trauma”? Or, I hope we can simply agree, trauma is trauma! 

Dear Trauma Survivor…

Don’t get caught up in misleading language about types of trauma. It’s tempting to think “others have it so much worse” or “this isn’t trauma because…” What matters is the impact of adversity in your life on you. If you think it’s trauma, or you are having trauma reactions, then it is trauma! (Here are 9 signs you may be a trauma survivor.)

Trauma is trauma. It all deserves compassion and empathy. Trauma is also completely subjective. No matter what kind of adversity you may face, your recovery is just as important, meaningful and deserved as anyone else’s. I encourage you to find a trauma-informed therapist who understands that your perspective is what is most important.

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