Is This What Trauma Feels Like?
How you process extreme stress now can pay off in the long run
My diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder came after a string of difficult personal events: a traumatic birth, an eviction, two close family members diagnosed with cancer, marital problems, even a cockroach infestation. Taken on their own, I might have managed each, but as they piled up over the course of three years, I found my anxiety climbing. I had nightmares and horrible daydreams; I was unable to focus on my son; I had panic attacks that put me in the hospital. A chat with my family doctor got me a referral to a social worker who specializes in PTSD. In my first session, I cried, not knowing if what I had gone through “counted” as traumatic; she reassured me that it did, and that she could help.
It was in PTSD therapy that I learned a way of thinking about trauma that can be very reassuring to people who, like me, might be compelled to second-guess the severity of their experience: ‘big-T’ trauma and ‘little-t’ trauma. Big-T covers the kinds of huge, cataclysmic experiences that we tend to associate with PTSD — things like combat, sexual assault, and life-threatening illness. Little-t traumas, on the other hand, might not be directly life- or body-threatening, but can be hugely destabilizing in a person’s life: job loss; housing uncertainty; food insecurity; loss of support systems like childcare, therapy, or time with friends — in short, what many of us are going through right now. When experienced in succession, those little-t traumas can have a big-T cumulative effect.
“Traumas large and small happen in our life,” says Hilary Fair, a psychotherapist in Stratford, Canada. While it can be tempting to downplay those smaller experiences of trauma, we shouldn’t. As Fair puts it, “Nobody really has the right to tell you whether or not you’re traumatized.”
But the difficult part of dealing with trauma is that we don’t always know in the midst of an experience whether it will be traumatic. As the world faces the same inexorable pandemic, this is one of the many ways our individual experiences of it will wildly diverge: Some will have horrific experiences and emerge saddened and exhausted but not traumatized. Others might face challenges that seem relatively manageable in the moment…