We were just signing off from our session, confirming the date and time for the next one when my client, CC, made an offhand remark – “Wow – I never knew that what I had was trauma”.
Trauma as a lived reality
CC came to counselling because she was unable to feel joy, and thus, when faced with having to make significant life choices and decisions, she was often unmotivated to take control.
CC hails from a loving, tight-knit and financially comfortable Asian family. She does not fit into the typical profile of someone who has experienced trauma in her developmental years. Yet, her lack of motivation for joy or action suggested that she had experienced unresolved small “t”s – small traumas in her life that had caused a cumulative effect of helplessness, which she emotionally felt as apathy and joylessness.
Freezing as a coping mechanism
When CC presented her issues to me, the first thing that popped into my head in terms of her psycho-neurological state was that “she’s frozen”. Her autonomic nervous system had suffered a shock somewhere along her life story and her “fight/flight/freeze” mode was activated to the “freeze” mode.
It suggested to me that her default way of coping with negative emotions was to suppress them or to rationalise them away. For CC, her emotional brain remembered the effects of the small traumas but had no way of making meaning out of them. Therefore, whenever she felt triggered, her emotional brain switched to the survival mode of freezing, without learning to effectively process, adapt and master the negative emotions.
CC is not alone. So many of us carry the unacknowledged, but felt, negative emotions of small traumas. These accumulated emotional stress are sometimes manifested in our physiological systems as gastrointestinal distress, headaches, migraines, body aches and other autoimmune dysfunction. Emotionally, we find ourselves easily triggered without an understanding of why and in hindsight, these events did not seem to merit such a reaction.
Big Ts and Small Ts - Big Traumas, Small Traumas
While I was training to be an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) practitioner, our supervisor, Dr Laurel Parnell presented to us the differences between Big Traumas and Small Traumas.
One of the best explanations of Small “Ts” and Big “Ts” can be found on Psychology Today’s website:
I’ll quote the salient points from the article here:
“Small ‘t’ traumas are events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning. Small ‘t’ traumas tend to be overlooked by the individual who has experienced the difficulty…
This is sometimes due to the tendency to rationalize the experience as common and therefore cognitively shame oneself for any reaction that could be construed as an overreaction or being “dramatic…
…One of the most overlooked aspects of small ‘t’ traumas is their accumulated effect. While one small ‘t’ trauma may not lead to significant distress, multiple compounded small ‘t’ traumas, particularly in a short span of time, are more likely to lead to an increase in distress and trouble with emotional functioning.
Large-T trauma is distinguished as an extraordinary and significant event that leaves the individual feeling powerless and possessing little control in their environment…Large ‘T’ traumas are more readily identified by the experiencer, as well as those who have any familiarity with their plight.”
The good news I have found for myself and my clients is that when we engage in creating and devoting space to our bio-psychological health, we empower ourselves with self-knowledge and self-agency.
My clients inspire hope and respect in me. It takes courage to go on this journey of self-discovery. The Latin root for “Courage” is “Cor” which means “heart”. I would like to think that my clients can find in our time together a safe therapeutic space, to tell their stories with all of their hearts – and in so doing – honour their strengths and offer compassion to their weaknesses.
I’ll end with a quote from Brene Brown:
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”