3 Important Things To Know About The Complex Nature of Trauma

While we hear a lot about the word, “trauma” these days, and people are more willing to talk about their experiences, there are some fundamental truths that can help it seem less complex. This article will provide an overview of some of the main truths about trauma.

1. There Is Big “T” And Little “t” Trauma

There are two different conceptualizations of trauma. Big “T” Trauma is a big event; something that is life-threatening and that you only need to experience once to develop symptoms of extreme stress. For example, people whose lives were ambushed by Hurricane Katrina or the refugee crisis in Syria would likely have significant and lasting stress from these events.


The second way trauma is talked about is called little “t” trauma. These events are less threatening, but still very distressing, and if they accumulate over time, could have the same impact as big “T” trauma. When we talk about little “t” trauma, we’re not talking about the size of the event, we are talking about the frequency of the event.


Big “T” trauma refers to any event where a person’s life was perceived to be in danger. They usually include physical forms of threat.


The following could be examples of big “T” traumas:

  • Sexual assault or physical assault and abuse

  • Major car accident

  • War and combat

  • Surviving a natural disaster

  • A loved one dying suddenly and tragically


Little “t” trauma includes events that are stressful and emotionally harmful, and which are usually repeated over time, which we would call chronic.


These events might include things like:

  • Emotional abuse and neglect from people you trusted

  • Life transitions where support was missing or lacking

  • Loss of significant relationships

  • Divorce and separation, including difficult custody negotiations

  • Bullying and being excluded from the community

  • Harassment and microaggressions

  • Substance use in family

  • Financial hardship or unsafe housing and homelessness

  • Separation or abandonment from primary caregivers


Experiencing trauma does not necessarily mean that a person will develop symptoms that interfere with their daily life, such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rather, the quality of coping skills in the face of trauma will be the most important factor.


2. Trauma Affects The Brain

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is linked with a unique stress response profile, including low levels of cortisol (most well known as the stress hormone) and increased noradrenergic and adrenergic activity. This disruption of the stress regulation system creates a vulnerability and impaired stress management, which might include hyperactivity or hypoactivity.


MRI brain scans of traumatized individuals show a decrease in prefrontal activity when they are under stress. This is because neurologically, stress can bring on a temporary flattening of executive functioning and reasoning ability. The left front cortex, which is the area where reasoning happens, has less activity while the right frontal cortex and amygdala, the area that is often responsible for emotions, is hyperactive. This makes it difficult to keep perspective and make informed life decisions, both big and small.


The difficulty that traumatized individuals have in making helpful and clear decisions all too often has the unintended impact of feeling bad about themselves as well, contributing to low self-esteem. Sometimes, traumatized individuals can also unintentionally re-traumatize themselves through repeating behaviors and patterns that might be familiar, but do not ultimately serve them.


3. Trauma Has A Generational Impact

From a multigenerational perspective, we can see that trauma is passed down through the family tree. Environmentally, we can gather how children of traumatized parents may fall prey to the same symptoms, but this phenomenon can also be observed in the brain. For instance, offspring of Holocaust survivors have been studied in order to observe changes in the stress hormone, cortisol. Low cortisol levels were found in parents with PTSD as well as in their children, independent of whether the children had directly experienced trauma themselves.


The study also found that the more severe the trauma, the lower the cortisol levels were. Cortisol helps the body return to homeostasis following a stressful event, so low levels of cortisol would slow the process of returning to a state of calm. Reduced cortisol levels also result in prolonged physiological and emotional distress, which would then facilitate the development of PTSD in individuals at risk.


Healing from Trauma at Coastal Light Counseling

Although there will always be some degree of trauma that is unavoidable because experiences of suffering are part of life, severe trauma has clear implications on the whole of a person and community. Current research on epigenetics and transgenerational trauma seems to be revealing how far-reaching and dominant the influences of trauma can be. There is a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and cultural features that contribute to how one might fair in dealing with trauma.


Working with a trained therapist, selecting relationships that are affirming and healthy, and engaging in regular activities to help get the nervous system to a regulated state, are all effective ways to manage traumatic stress.


Even if you're not ready to begin the therapy process now, connect with our team on Instagram for helpful hints and updates from our clinicians!

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