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What is Little T Trauma and How to Deal With It?

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

woman lying in bed hugging a pillow.

Psychological Trauma - big ‘T’ trauma. What is it? It is those moments in life when we find ourselves deep in fear. Not just your everyday run of the mill, there’s a little creepy crawly on your shoulder kind of fear, but the kind of fear when your mind and body sync up together and think that there is a possibility of death on table. Maybe the fear is of your death or the death of someone that you know or for whom you care deeply. This fear knows no age minimums or maximums. From infancy through adulthood, this fear is possible and it can be consuming.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk's quote: "Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory." post on Louise Wonders Play Therapy Instagram Profile

Nevertheless, at the time of intense fear, your mind and body cannot distinguish between thought and reality. To survive, your body prepares you to do whatever may be needed. That preparation is instinctual and automatic and when acted upon, that preparation gets intertwined and encoded in our memories, “Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.” (The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk). We respond in ways that are designed to get us out of the life threatening situation. If you are reading this, if your child or friend is still among us, then the trauma response worked. You survived it. But, surviving is not the same thing as thriving.

Little ‘t’ Trauma

Before we dive into what it might take to thrive, let’s explore little ‘t’ - trauma. Have you had a friend that was so important to you that you gave one another family status? That kind of friendship where you can complete one another’s sentences, have the best inside jokes, and you can’t imagine going through anything exciting or challenging without at least rushing to tell them. Now imagine breaking up with that friend. It doesn’t really matter who breaks it off because regardless of who ended the friendship, you have to grieve. You feel empty, rejected, maybe betrayed or really, really sad. The future that you imagined now can never happen because that friend was in all of your future plans. You have to shift not only how you live in your day-to-day life, but you also have to adjust your dreams. That could be a little ‘t’ trauma. Whether moving, changing jobs, parents arguing or separating, breakups, experiences of racial microaggressions, or saying goodbye to friendships that were supposed to last forever, they can have a psychological impact that result in trauma responses. No, your life wasn’t in danger, and no, your feelings may not have been intense, and still, your mind and body have a reaction that leads to trauma responses.

Little ‘t’ traumas are often prolonged rather than single incidents. They become imprinted on us when we do not have the resources, such as a healthy emotional support network, to sit with and experience the emotions. Once imprinted and unattended to, they inform how we interact with others and may make it challenging to maintain healthy relationships or careers that sustain us. The unattended to is an important part here. I don’t want you leaving this article thinking that life is a series of little ‘t’ traumas. It does not have to be. For people who are in or have been in authentic trauma recovery therapies, have and utilize an emotional support network or who work through emotionally challenging events in ways that are healing, rarely raise these experiences to the level of little ‘t’ trauma. It is only when we don’t know the weight of the experience, brush these events aside, douse them in the fragrance of toxic positivity, or attempt to cope using strategies that can have long-term negative consequences (e.g., such as substance use, food consumption, changes in our sexual decision making, etc.) that little ‘t’ traumas exert their weight.

How Do I Know When Trauma is the Culprit?

Because and aside from the fact that I am a Black woman in the United States, I am the survivor of big ‘T’ traumas. I am also the survivor of little ‘t’ traumas that I did not always know could have an impact on me. Once I learned about little ‘t’ traumas, years ago, I started becoming even more protective of my time and energy. As a therapist, I choose to engage in a tremendous amount of emotional care work. As a trauma therapist, my emotional care work multiplies exponentially. That means, I have to be protective of myself so that I am able to hold what people, who trust me with their needs and the needs of their children, bring to their sessions.

The past six weeks or so, in the months of March and April 2021, I found myself both having trauma responses and being triggered (those two things are different and may be discussed in another article.) I had big plans for March and April. Advocating to end the traumatic treatment of young Black children in schools (*warning: this video clip starts at the 20 seconds of me talking; however, if you watch past 1:10 seconds, you will see disturbing footage that could be traumatizing) was on my agenda, followed by driving attention to this topic by discussing it on multiple platforms. I was going to discuss parental mental health in the NICU for Hope for HIE, which I am on the Medical Advisory Board. I had a posting scheduled for PlayfulLeigh Psyched’s Instagram page, which included recording videos for reels and inviting collaborations with colleagues. I was launching a mini course on the impact of racism on infant mental health and was supposed to let people know that it was coming for a low trial price. There were a slew of other things as well. As you can see, a few of those things were accomplished, but no the vast majority of them were not.

Here’s why. I started noticing:

  • My smile was dimming.

  • No matter how much sleep I got, I was feeling both tired and sleepy.

  • Spending time on social media, I found myself feeling jumpy and worried about what I would see if I scrolled too far down on my feed.

  • I was feeling guilty for not posting anything, but especially for not posting about the issues that mean the most to me.

  • My mind was foggy, like it was getting harder for me to think clearly.

  • My stutter/tendency to stumble over my words was increasing.

  • I just really wanted to sleep or to be in a dark cozy space and not come out.

  • I was avoiding responding to emails and other tasks that were both time consuming and time sensitive.

  • Past traumatic events that I have worked through were intrusively entering my thought space and body whenever my mind wasn’t otherwise occupied.

  • I had a nightmare or two. I never have nightmares.

That was my body telling me that I was having trauma responses. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t anxious. I was experiencing the effects of little ‘t’ traumas that were reigniting my big ‘T’ trauma memories. My mind and body were trying to make sense of the nonsensical things happening in the US. The harming and killing of Black children and adults. The second layers of deepening the wounds by slaughtering the characters of slain Black children, Black Deaf people (search Andrea “Dre” Hollingsworth) being slammed to the ground and handcuffed in front of their children while their children cry out in horror, and the constant media messages that lie to us and say that violence against people in Black communities is gendered. The false message that violence is gendered, attempts to erase the danger that my Black body has experienced and pretends that my Black body has no right to be afraid for myself or the Black girls and women in my life. Misogynoir was woven into these arguments.

What are Some Steps Toward Trauma Recovery?

I know it is cliché to say that the first step to something is noticing it, still, that is the truth. Below you will find 10 ways to work through a period of heightened trauma responses starting with the ones that worked for me, and the first thing that I did was take notice of what I was feeling.

Tried and true methods that worked for Dr. Dowtin:

  1. Take note of the signals that your mind and body are sending to you. No under the rug sweeping allowed here.

  2. Increase your physical activity level. I increased my step count goal a little every two weeks for a total of 2,000 more daily steps.

  3. Spend more time outside. Sunlight and nature have been shown to have positive effects on mental and physical health.

  4. Take a social media break. I think this is clear why and how it helps.

  5. Give attention to your sensory needs. This can include changing up your bathing routine to include changing the scent that you use in soap, showering with scent candles, using low light when bathing, pulling out an old playlist, or using a sugar scrub (I really, really, love this).

  6. Express compassion for yourself by allowing yourself to take some time enjoying your creature comforts. Any level of guilt that enters here is solely to rob you of the present moment.