Especially after the Covid pandemic in 2020, the word “trauma” has been used more and more. It’s not uncommon to hear someone describe their meeting at work or their experience reading a sad book as “traumatizing;” sometimes people ascribe trauma symptoms to themselves after a bad breakup or particularly stressful life transition. Statements like these say one thing very clearly: people are hurting and they are desperate for language to describe this hurt. In a social media driven world that spreads information rapidly yet also leaves people feeling isolated about how to express their pain, you might be searching for straightforward information about what trauma is. You might also want to know it shows up, and what treatment for it looks like. If so, I’m happy you’re here.
What is Trauma?
Can you picture a time when something happened to you that overwhelmed you emotionally, mentally, and maybe even physically? It was like nothing else you had ever experienced before. The normal coping skills you used in the past to get through hard times weren’t enough. Your capacity to cope was severely diminished and your feelings about yourself, others, safety, trust, and the world had changed. Even if you didn’t realize it cognitively, your entire worldview had seismically shifted and your relationships felt the impact. Your body felt different too: you had insomnia for the first time, you had trouble relaxing, and you were always alert for danger. Emotionally, you felt irritable, sad, and guilty all the time. Mentally, you were fixated on memories of what had happened to you and your brain kept sending unwanted intrusive thoughts your way. You might have approached sex and physical intimacy differently and you found that certain physical spaces brought up a sense of panic or fear. Whatever your specific experience, it was exhausting.
If this sounds familiar to you, you might have experienced what is called a Big “T” trauma. Those are traumas that either directly threaten your life and safety (i.e. assault, violence, death, national disaster, etc.) or that you witness happening to someone else. The symptoms I just described are incredibly difficult but also very normal responses that people have who have survived horrific events that they have no grid for. Sometimes, these symptoms are severe and life-altering enough to warrant a diagnosis for PTSD (a serious but very treatable mental health disorder that can occur when the trauma you experienced exceeds your capacity to cope).
There are also Little “t” traumas. Now, the word little is not used to invalidate the trauma or demean the sufferer here. It’s actually used to describe the different types of trauma a person can experience so that clinicians can appropriately categorize your symptoms and make a diagnosis that will fit your needs. Examples of little ‘t’ traumas might include a bad fight with your spouse where hurtful words were said; the loss of a friendship that was dear to you; the extended struggle to find a job, etc. These traumas can be extremely devastating and might provoke some of the symptoms of big ‘t’ traumas we just discussed. Certainly they alter your life and worldview and warrant careful attention and treatment. The main difference between the big and little “t,” however, is the clinical diagnosis: little ‘t’ traumas typically don’t lead to the development of PTSD and big ‘t’ traumas often do.
What Does Therapy for Trauma Look Like?
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about what trauma is and how it shows up in the brain, body, and emotions, let’s talk about how to treat it. Fortunately, many highly-skilled clinicians and researchers have spent their lives finding ways to alleviate the suffering that comes with trauma and those methods are used by trained therapists every day. Some evidence-backed methods include:
- Trauma-Conscious Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Cognitive Processing Therapy
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy
Additionally, some more experimental techniques can be helpful, including:
Somatic Psychotherapy, Expressive Arts Therapy, Equine Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
You might come across providers who call themselves trauma-informed or trauma-conscious therapists. This means that they have completed extra training in one or more of the modalities listed above (or have a lot of supervised experience in treating trauma) and can provide special support or insight into your experience. A helpful tip in finding a trauma therapist is to ask what kinds of trainings they have completed and if they have experience in treating the issue you are dealing with.
If all of this information feels like drinking from a fire hydrant, that’s ok! Trauma is a big topic and can bring up a lot of emotions. If this post was helpful to you, stay tuned for future posts about trauma and the body, trauma and brain, and self-care tips for trauma survivors.
If you think you might need some help dealing with trauma (or Trauma) (see what we did there? Big T, little t?), contact us. We can help!