Big T Trauma vs Small t Trauma

In this next lesson we’re going to unpack what kinds of traumas we can experience. As I mentioned in the last lesson, trauma happens on a continuum, and each person’s experience of what causes stress and trauma can be extremely different. In the therapy world, we tend to group the causes of trauma into two main groups: ‘big T' trauma, and ‘small t' trauma. This lesson will focus on what that means. 

I’ll let you know now this lesson is kind of a biggie because there is so much to cover, and it also lists types of traumas that could potentially be distressing to hear. There are no graphic details, just short lists, but if you do experience any distress feel free to stop, take breaks, or just skip this lesson altogether. Notice what feels right for you, and if you’re all good —

What is Big T trauma

When we traditionally think of the word “trauma”, what usually comes to mind are major events such as war, a natural disaster, or sexual assault. 

This is what big T trauma is — also known as single-incident trauma

Big T trauma is usually one major catastrophic event that has lasting impacts on a person’s life due to how extreme or life-threatening the event is. 

Examples of big T trauma include:

  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Physical assault
  • Domestic abuse
  • Witnessing or being victim to a violent crime
  • Being in a serious accident
  • Witnessing death
  • Experiencing a life threatening illness

It’s easy for us to recognise these events as something that would cause traumatic stress because they are a very clear, recognisable example of a person being faced with an extreme threat to their well-being. It’s what our nervous systems created these primitive danger responses for in the first place — just like the grizzly bear example I used in our very first lesson. 

What is Small t trauma

But there’s another kind of trauma we can experience that can also cause our bodies to go into a traumatic stress response, and it comes from repeated, seemingly inconsequential events that can build up over time. 

This is called small t trauma — also known as complex trauma

Small t trauma happens from repeated events that maybe aren’t so clearly life-threatening, but still cause subjective hurt or pain, and threaten our well-being in some way. Most importantly, these events often stay hidden, unacknowledged, or are just viewed as a ‘normal’ part of life despite the hurt they cause. 

Sometimes complex trauma and big T trauma can kind of overlap, for example in instances of ongoing physical abuse from a loved one where there is a really clear, ongoing threat to a person’s safety. But sometimes it isn’t so clear. And there’s a really important element of small t trauma that I want to focus on first so that we can understand why. 

Humans are social beings

So far in our examples of trauma, we have focussed on events where a person’s safety is threatened by a clear physical danger like that grizzly bear our ancestors would face in the wild. But what we have to remember is that humans are social beings. For as long as humans have existed we have formed tribes and relied on our parents, our relationships, and our community for survival.

While our brains are wired to keep us safe from physical life-threatening events, they are also wired to keep us safe socially, because that has also been necessary for our survival growing up. In order to feel safe socially, both as children and adults, we need to know that our primary caregivers or loved ones are accessible to us, will respond to us if we need them, and can engage with us in the ways we need. We need to know that we’ll be accepted, comforted, and protected by our tribe. 

It sounds cliche but love and social connection are primary human needs, and if these needs aren’t met, our survival brains can perceive this as just as life-threatening as an attack from a grizzly bear. If we think back to our nervous system ladder, there’s a reason the green zone at the top of the ladder is called the social engagement system — this is our first point of defence. If we’re feeling unsafe or are craving love and social connection, our nervous system will instinctively turn to this first rung on the ladder — we will call out for help, support, and comfort. But if no one answers our call, that’s when our bodies might have no choice but to go into a traumatic stress response further down the ladder. 

When our social needs aren't met

As infants and children we are particularly susceptible to small t trauma. If we remember our last lesson, we can experience traumatic stress from a perceived threat to our well-being. As babies and children, not only are we are extremely dependent on the care of our guardians for soothing and survival, but our brains aren’t actually fully developed yet for rational thinking or logic. 

This means if we’re crying out for help and our caregiver doesn’t respond, our brains aren’t yet able to have the logical thought that “maybe mum’s hands are full right now with another sibling or task, but she will come to soothe me as soon as she can and I will be okay” — instead an infant’s brain can go to an instant reaction of “mum is not coming at all, she has abandoned me, I am alone and scared and these feelings are too overwhelming for me to handle on my own”. We’ll unpack these kinds of unconscious responses in a later module. 

Examples of small t trauma

I think by now it’s pretty clear how nuanced and complicated the topic of trauma is. Many events and experiences can lead to small t trauma, far too many to list here. Below I’ve listed some of the most frequent causes of small t trauma. As you read through the list, remember that these can happen on a spectrum and can be either subtle or overt.

Examples of small t trauma include:

  • Experiencing neglect or a shortage of affection, eye contact, or physical contact
  • Being ignored, feeling unseen and unheard, or having your emotions dismissed, misunderstood or denied
  • Being bullied, yelled at, called names, mocked, or threatened with harm, punishment or abandonment
  • Experiencing too much attention, overbearing care, overstimulation, or frequent boundary crossings
  • Failing at school, losing a job, feeling like a disappointment or as though you cannot measure up to another person’s standards or expectations
  • Major life changes such as moving house, changing schools, divorce, parents remarrying, blending families or infidelity
  • Estrangement from family members, abandonment, adoption, death of a loved one
  • Having a parent or sibling who lives with disability, illness, depression, addiction, mental illness, or an inability to regulate their own emotions
  • Feeling isolated or “different” from others, for example due to disability, gender identification, sexual orientation, body image, or cultural issues
  • Coping with socioeconomic issues such as poverty, financial insecurity, housing insecurity, homelessness, oppression, prejudice, immigration

Go gently

I want you to remember, this is not about blame or guilt. Caregivers, siblings, teachers, partners and friends could all be doing the best that they can, with the best intentions, and still unintentionally cause hurt or pain for their child or loved one. Healing from our experiences does not require confrontation or assigning blame. 

I also want to reassure you that it actually isn’t necessary to dredge up old memories from the past, fixate on our traumas, or even label things as ‘trauma’ in order to find healing in our lives. Learning about this stuff is simply so that we can raise our self-awareness, and maybe begin to untangle our own internal experiences that we possibly didn’t understand until now. And hopefully in doing this, we can bring compassion to ourselves. If I were to have a mission statement as to why I create this content for people — that one  take-away that I would want you to have after all this — it always  comes back to giving kindness to self. And for me, this kind of education and awareness allows that. 

Lesson Review

This lesson was kind of a big one. We talked about the difference between big T trauma and small t trauma, and how traumatic stress can come from both life-threatening events as well as from real or perceived threats to our social well-being. In our next lesson we’re going to unpack this a little bit further by deepening our understanding of trauma and the brain, so that we can understand what it is about these experiences that overwhelms our brain’s capacity to cope in the first place.