What is Trauma?
Psychological trauma is a complex, full body and mind response that affects our ability to function adaptively following an overwhelming event that was perceived by our nervous system as life-threatening to ourselves or others (especially loved ones). Trauma affects us emotionally, cognitively, physically, spiritually, and socially.
Trauma can be a one-time event, a prolonged event, or a series of events. A single traumatic event (a car accident in an otherwise good life) would be considered a ‘simple trauma’ because it is the only trauma that needs to be addressed. Prolonged or ongoing trauma (abuse, torture, bullying, living in an unsafe environment, gaslighting, etc.) is considered ‘complex trauma’ because many traumatic events have built upon themselves and have a more complicated effect on the person’s life.
‘Big T’ and ‘Little t’ Trauma
Mental health professionals refer to traumatic events as a ‘big T’ or ‘little t’ trauma to help understand and embrace the very wide range of experiences that may be traumatic for different people. ‘Big T’ traumas are things like war, natural disaster, accidents, major health scares, and the death of a loved one. ‘Little t’ traumas are typically things such as feeling that you don’t fit in, struggling to make new friends, adjusting to a new life situation (school, living with someone, parenting), or being broken up with. What determines what makes an event a ‘Big T’ or ‘Little t’ trauma is not the therapist but the client and their perspective of how the event threatened them.
For example, think about being a 30-year-old person not wearing the most current, hip, pair of jeans. This probably would not worry you or cause you distress, even if someone noticed. Imagine being a 15-year-old kid not wearing the most current or hip pair of jeans and feeling that every kid at school has noticed and is judging you. A 15-year-old may experience this level of judgment as life-threatening (to their social acceptance which is very, very important when you are a teen) but the 30-year-old probably doesn’t think much of it. For the 15-year-old, this could be a ‘Big T’ trauma but for the 30-year-old, it may not be a trauma at all. It’s all about personal perspective.
How is Trauma Stored in the Mind and Body?
Traumatic memories are stored in the brain as images
Traumatic memories are stored in the brain in an unconscious, fragmented, and disorganized way. There is no beginning, middle, end, or future to a traumatic memory, no sense of order or even connection to the different pieces of itself. Many people describe traumatic memories as quick images, flashes of memory – this is due to how the memory is stored when a terrible thing happens.
When a good thing is happening, our mind and nervous system is calm and can pay attention to all the different parts of what is happening and the memory gets stored in a healthy (adaptive) way. When a bad thing happens we are threatened and our brain and body start to respond (fight/flight/freeze/shut-down) in an effort to protect us from the bad thing. Our mind is not relaxed enough to take in all the different parts of what is happening, nor does it want to. This is why traumatic (maladaptive) memory is stored in fragmented segments.
Trauma is also stored in our nervous system/sensory system.
How our bodies felt at the time the traumatic thing was happening will get stored (locked) in our nervous system and are easily triggered and re-experienced when something reminds our nervous system of the original trauma, even just a little bit. This is all unconscious and happens without even noticing it! This response is called ‘implicit memory’, it’s like the lens through which we view the world.
Trauma gets stored in our beliefs about ourselves.
Often the beliefs about ourselves that get created and stored at the time a terrible thing is happening are beliefs of worthiness, safety, responsibility, and shame. The dysfunctional belief at the time the terrible thing happens ‘Somehow, I deserve this, asked for this, or allowed this.’
The way the body (nervous system/sensory system), mind, and thoughts join together to store the traumatic memory is what causes the complexity of trauma. Trauma is more than a thought. It is more than a feeling in our body, and it is more than a belief about ourselves. It is all these things together, stored maladaptively, deep inside us, that causes the problems and symptoms we may cope with today.