Trauma Tips for Understanding and Healing, Part 2

How we think about trauma has implications for learning, growth, and healing.

Posted Feb 23, 2016

CC0 Public Domain / FAQ
Source: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

Trauma Can Take Many Forms

When we think of trauma what typically comes to mind are horrific events, such as war, acts of terrorism, natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, and earthquakes), plane or train crashes, motor vehicle accidents, or violent crime (public shootings, murders, and physical/sexual assaults). These are sometimes referred to as “Big-T” traumas. Big-T traumas are experiences with clear beginnings and endpoints.

Tragically, many people experience trauma within their own families. More obvious forms of trauma in the family include being subjected to and/or witnessing physical or sexual abuse. Yet, the majority of people experience a more subtle and chronic form of trauma. Sometimes known as “small-t” traumas, they come from repetitive experiences that usually occur during childhood and adolescence.

Small-t traumas

Small-t traumas can be any life experience that causes lasting harm to a person’s sense of self and self-esteem. They often result from various forms of abandonment and rejection that children experience when their parents/primary caregivers are not physically or emotionally available in the ways those children need. For example, on an ongoing basis, name-calling, put-downs, verbal abuse, living with the uncertainty of not knowing if or when a parent is coming home, or the fear that comes with listening to one’s parents argue/fight night after night can be traumatic for any child. These kinds of traumas are extremely common for people in recovery from addiction—especially those who grew up in addicted, violent, impoverished, or otherwise unstable or even unsafe family systems and neighborhoods.

It’s important to be aware that small-t traumas are not less significant than “bigger” traumas. The distinction is made to recognize that trauma can be caused by seemingly “smaller” events that happen over an extended period of time. Previously, these experiences (being bullied is another example) were not viewed or treated as potentially traumatic.

Because the events occur repeatedly, even if they continue to be upsetting and painful, the affected person (most often a child) becomes used to them. When such events are woven into one’s ongoing life experience they don’t stand out as being unusual—they become “normal” and just “the way it is.” With enough exposure, virtually anything, no matter how unhealthy or horrific can seem normal. As insidious as this process is, it is also a form of self-protection, allowing children to bear the pain of circumstances far beyond their control.

The cumulative impacts of these small-t traumas are substantial but may remain hidden from those who experience them. The thoughts and feelings endure, but they have not been emotionally processed and persist in the unconscious—outside of awareness. When that child becomes an adult and gets involved in relationships (both romantic and social) that bring up feelings connected to such past experiences, those traumas can be triggered—leading to conflict or arguments that commonly involve over-the-top emotional reactions completely out of proportion to the current situation. Instead of responding consciously in the here and now, the person is reacting unconsciously from the there and then.

The vulnerability you experienced as a child—the pain, the losses, the distorted beliefs about yourself and how things are, and the ways in which you learned to protect yourself—all go with you into your adult life. These are trauma responses.

There is another form of trauma that deserves mention. Intergenerational trauma is trauma that is transmitted across generations, and often occurs to groups of people. This is trauma that has been effectively transferred from a first generation of trauma survivors to the second and later generations of children of those survivors.

This relates to the descendants of immediate victims of and witnesses to: genocide, slavery, racially/ethnically-based violence and persecution, terrorism, totalitarian political regimes, and clerical abuse in religious organizations. Specific examples include, but are not limited to: Native Americans, Holocaust survivors, Japanese internment camp survivors, and African Americans. Domestic/intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and extreme poverty are also sources of trauma that can be transferred to subsequent generations.

As indicated above, this is the second of a four-part series.

Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW. All Rights Reserved.

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain