Big T and Little t Trauma and How Your Body Reacts to It

face profile in black and white silhouetteTrauma can be defined as an event that falls outside the range of usual human experience that causes distress. Trauma can be either human-made or from natural causes. Examples of human-made trauma include physical or sexual violence, war, car accidents, or witnessing the injury of someone else. Natural traumatic events might include floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

The way people experience trauma can be grouped into two types: big T and little t. A big T event is one that most people would consider traumatic, such as a plane crash or sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one. A little t event is one experienced as traumatic at a personal level, such as the loss of a pet or a relationship breakup.

How Your Body Responds to Trauma

When you experience a traumatic event, your body may respond by going through a sequence of six different actions. Many people have heard of the fight-or-flight response, which is part of the larger picture. Each action is thought to be your body’s way of trying to protect you from potential harm. You may experience the full sequence of events or only part of it, depending on the situation. The response varies depending on how severe you think the threat is in relation to your own power to take action.

Trauma Response No. 1: Freeze

During the freeze response, your body stops to heighten your awareness of what’s going on around you. Your hearing and vision will likely seem heightened as your brain attempts to gauge how threatening the situation is.

Trauma Response No. 2: Flight

Once you’ve perceived that a situation is threatening, your body goes into an “alert” mode. Your muscles tense up and your body readies itself to flee if necessary.

Trauma Response No. 3: Fight

The third response many people experience in a traumatic situation is to feel like fighting or confronting the situation or perpetrator. Your heart rate will increase and you may attempt to counteract the danger.

Trauma Response No. 4: Fright

The fright response occurs when your emotions peak with the feeling of fear and your ability to think or concentrate becomes limited. Your body may become immobile, and parts of the event may start to be “blocked out” as you come to realize that there may be no way to escape or counter the situation.

Trauma Response No. 5: Flag

The flagging response is when your biological systems begin to shut down, your blood pressure drops, and your emotions become numbed.

Trauma Response No. 6: Faint

The final response to trauma is fainting, which happens in extreme cases and includes losing the ability to send any messages to your body to take action.

Why Your Brain Holds on to Traumatic Experiences and How To Let Them Go

When I speak with survivors of sexual assault, they often mention experiencing the first or fourth responses and describe feeling frozen or dissociated from the violence happening to their bodies. Trauma survivors often say they aren’t able to remember the entire traumatic event, which makes sense. When you’re scared, unable to concentrate, and your body’s systems are shutting down, it’s highly unlikely that you will remember everything that is going on or recall the order in which things happened. Other people, however, can remember vivid details about the event but still may notice gaps or have trouble accurately describing what happened.

Counseling may not be able to help you fill in all the missing pieces as a result of the trauma, but it can help piece together a fuller image of your life and create greater clarity about where the trauma fits within the bigger picture.Two areas of the brain that manage memory and emotions are commonly affected by traumatic events, which can help explain why memories become fragmented and emotions may feel overwhelming even after the trauma has ended. The brain seems to pick and choose memories and feelings it thinks are the most helpful for your survival, and it wants you to retain that information.

Although your body is designed to protect you during a trauma, your brain might be sending unhelpful messages that keep your body in constant protection mode long after the trauma is over. It’s almost as if your brain thinks if it can hold on to those bits and pieces of scary memories and not let go of all the feelings after a traumatic experience, maybe you will stay safe and not get hurt again. However, constantly remembering the event and feeling worried, numb, and hypervigilant can be exhausting and frustrating. This is when you may feel the need to seek help from a therapist or other mental health professional.

By talking about the event with a counselor, you can process it at your own pace and put words to what you experienced to help your body and mind let go and quit trying to protect you unnecessarily. Counseling may not be able to help you fill in all the missing pieces as a result of the trauma, but it can help piece together a fuller image of your life and create greater clarity about where the trauma fits within the bigger picture.

References:

  1. Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461.
  2. Schauer, M., Neuner, F., & Elbert, T. (2011). Narrative exposure therapy (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC, CTTS, therapist in Vancouver, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • randee

    randee

    October 19th, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    Everything bad that happens to me, I always experience it like a capital T trauma

  • Jemima

    Jemima

    October 19th, 2015 at 4:01 PM

    I tend to want to fight it out, defense is my go to mode, and even long after the row is over, I still feel this anger toward another person that I can never seem to quite let go of.

  • Phyllis

    Phyllis

    October 19th, 2015 at 7:20 PM

    I lost my beautiful son David 😢 💔 0 3-30-14 , he had just turned 40 years old and I found him dead in his own bed ! !! But I can’t remember my last evening with him !! My mind has just shut down when I try to remember all I can see is him not breathing and the police and ambulance ! !! It hurts so much to know he was alone and I couldn’t help him !! Coroner said his heart just stopped beating !!! Don’t understand why I can’t remember are last evening together ! !

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    October 19th, 2015 at 9:55 PM

    Hi randee, Jemima, and Phyllis. Thank you all for commenting and sharing how you’ve responded to different traumatic events. It sounds like each of you has had some very difficult experiences to deal with. Randee, I don’t know if this fits for you or not, but sometimes people feel like things are a big T trauma because they feel a sense of helplessness or powerlessness against the things happening to them. Jemima, feeling angry after a trauma is common and anger can be difficult to let go of, it is often a feeling that tries to protect us from other, more vulnerable, feelings by giving us a sense of power or control. Phyllis, I’m sorry for your loss, losing a son and being the one who discovered him must be very difficult for you. Being unable to remember specific details is also common following trauma. Seeking out support groups, counseling, or other supportive people might be helpful for each of you if you decide to process your responses further. Talking about it can help you feel like you’re not alone, that your responses are normal, that there are areas in your life you can control, and that other people might feel similar to the way you do.

  • Erwin

    Erwin

    October 20th, 2015 at 7:10 AM

    Phyllis, that has to be so sad, knowing that the memories that you have of him during your last happy time together are missing. I promise if you find someone good to work with that they could likely help you regain much of that so that you have more than just sadness to remember about him.

  • Volney

    Volney

    October 23rd, 2015 at 4:48 PM

    Break ups are not little t events. At least, not all of them. They can be more traumatic as the excuses for leaving aren’t recognized as equally traumatic as a divorce is. Like this article does. Undermining.

  • Wendy K

    Wendy K

    October 23rd, 2015 at 5:57 PM

    The loss of a pet is not always a small-t trauma. What a bias! When I lost my cat 5 years ago, one I’d lived with and cared for for 15 years, it was almost a year before I stopped crying at least weekly. Therapists need to start understanding that a human-non-human bond can be as strong as a human-human bond. Otherwise, you will do a great disservice to many of your (potential?) clients.

  • Mimi

    Mimi

    October 23rd, 2015 at 7:11 PM

    Ive been raped, more then once (bad luck I suppose). I lost my virginity that way & I froze & drifted in & out of consciousness when it happened. I remember it like it was yesterday tho & a lot of the details somehow. Ive also been in a 3 year physically & emotionally abusive relationship where I never got a chance to fight tho I wanted to, the fear I felt really kept me from doing it. That’s how my life had good so far with trauma…I freeze, go numb, or run. I suck, wish I knew how to fight.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    October 23rd, 2015 at 8:01 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Mimi. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-domestic-violence.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Dane

    Dane

    October 24th, 2015 at 5:42 AM

    My daughter died a year ago. She was 20. I find it hard to remember much of the details of my life before her death. My other daughter often talks about a past I cannot remember. My past memory is in pieces-snapshots of my children back in time. I still function fine. I have no problem with my work. I wonder if I will ever remember. I feel as if I have suffered a stroke.

  • Judy

    Judy

    October 24th, 2015 at 6:28 AM

    I’ve been drug down the street when I was@tricycle age from a strange man while I was playing in our front porch/driveway area w/my sisters as this crazy man thought I was his daughter. While my sisters screamed for my mom to help, I froze in fear & couldn’t move nor speak. I was violently raped when I wash in 6th grade by a family friend b4 I turned 12years old & he busted me up & made me bleed b4 I even started my cycle. But that’s how I lost my virginity. In Jr High, I was bothered sexually by boys in my class and their friends because I was shy & the male yard teacher person who was supposed 2 protect us watched the boys & laughed as they tore off my clothes & climbed on top of me in middle of school yard & was “humping” on top of me. Yard teacher didn’t do anything & I was too scared to tell principal or someone. At church@14 years old & up the Deacon of my Baptist Church molested me in back of church pulpit then it went on many more times various places. I couldn’t tell nobody then but I’m sure another male church staff person knew who was the Deacons close friend. And he had a wife who also attended the church. That put a bad taste in my mouth so to speak about if you’re not safe even in God’s house, then where could u be safe at? I was sexually fondled & made to kiss my male teacher as by then I was put in a “continuation class” where I was with same teacher & class for 1/2 day every day. He tried to even make a game out of it & called me a “mean old woman” when I was just 14 & it hurt because I wasn’t a mean person at all so he had me to “prove it” by kissing him etc. While other students went outside to play or lunch. When he took us on a field trip and stopped by his house because he said he forgot something, his wife and little infant baby was there and the teacher had some of us come in and use the bathroom. While his wife showed one student where it was, the teacher kissed me & fondled me up in their kitchen of their home! I was more afraid of his wife finding out & blaming me as opposed to what he was doing was wrong. ALL during these years I was & until I left home later I was being horribly abused at home & by also the various men in neighborhood around who owned or worked in their Appliance repair shops, shoe repair shops,car garage shop across st from my house, or neighborhood liquor store where I would run to hide from my mom beating me & the guy would hide me in the back of store then when the coast was clear, he would then sexual abuse me for him having saved me from a horrific beating from my mom. Also when I told the man at shoe repair store that I was gonna tell my daddy, he said “go ahead he didn’t care as my father wasn’t gonna do anything” which him & my father was buddies and would hang out & also my father was abusing me sexually as well. So who could I turn to? I was made to go see a female Psychiatrist when I was 13-15 years old & she would ask me about school and my favorite subject, which I loved gym/PE as I was good at some things, & she had me to bring in and show her what we wore for PE. So I brought in my green shorts and green &awhile stripped shirt. She then had me to put it on in her office in front of her so I did. I sat down and she would take off her flip flop sandals she wore & ran her stinky toes and feet up &down my leg and to my crotch area. This went on each time after when I would see her twice weekly as my mom made me go see her as of the @trouble” I was having at school etc. I used to wear skirts a lot then but after the Psychiatrist would keep doing that every time up and down my legs etc I stopped wearing skirts and would wear jeans where she couldn’t run her stinky feet up &down my bare legs. I was also supposed to see her still & go to summer program there but I just stopped going & told my mother I didn’t wanna go but never did she ask me why & I couldn’t tell. Also between ages 13&14, I was kidnapped by this man in a white utility van where there were only windows in front of can but none on sides or back. He had the insides all rigged up w/a couch and back then there were reel-to-reel movies where he would put on dirty movies and have me in various states of undress &dos things and bound me up etc & took pic of me and showed me some he already had. He raped me several times in the course of 2-1/2 days & I stopped screaming &crying and trying to resist but seems like I just gave in to what the enevitable was and hoped if I cooperate he would let me go and not hurt me too bad nor kill me. After being blindfolded and various sex acts and being bound and pic and movies taken etc he finally let me go around corner from house where he picked me up. When I finally showed up my mom fussed at me and beat me cause she thought I had run away and do u know nobody looked for me those days & she didn’t report me missing? Who cared about me? Nobody. At about 16 years old, right after I took my GED and got out of school, my mom made me ward of the court and saying I was wayward & beyond parental control. Which was a total lie. I didn’t know what wayward was then but all I know is that I was trying to survive and not cause problems but I couldn’t tell nobody and I was always told that kids are to be seen and not heard. So who was gonna listen to me. Then ok I was sent to juvenile hall until they found placement for me. On a Sunday morning they let me catch the bus to go to my church. After church I was trying to get back as some of us girls was good and was going to be taken on a field trip and I wanted to go & was needing to be there before they left at 3pm. On Sunday’s buses run slow like about once per hour. So in my waiting a man in a white pick up truck drove by and stopped& asked me did I want a ride as hecsaidxno buses was coming for a long time. Being I was in a hurry & he seemed friendly I got in. Soon as we got closer to juvenile Hall where I was to get out, he started telling me he wanted to take me up to Twin Peaks to show me something for a minute. It wasn’t far but I was scared as hecwasvdriving the truck and touching my thighs. He also had a big dog in back bed of pick up truck. When I said no I was gonna be late he insisted and proceeded to drive up to twin oeaks( as some folks go there to make out).,He stopped at a stop sign then proceeded to drive again and pick up speed. But I knew my only hope was to get out of that truck somehow. So as he was driving I opened the door and leapt out, I stopped, dropped and rolled onto the middle of the street and had to roll around to keep from being hit by another car. I got up hurting and all & ran as east as I could inside the juvenile hall screaming about this man in a white pick up truck and what happened. As several male counsellors and staff etc ran outside the man you’re up the hill towards twin peaks. I was just glad I got away and was alive. Ok while I was in juvenile I then was placed in an institution type place. Bobbed wires and fenced all around. We went to school are and slept there and couldn’t leave except with a counselor or permission or on s field trip. They had boys cottages and girls cottages. The male staff messed with me and a few other girls there. Some males & female staff was messing with me sexually. There I also had my first true girlfriend. Don’t know why as I didn’t and wasn’t trying to be bothered with nobody but STUFF happened here. Anyway lots more happened and then when I was made almost 18 I left that institution. I was then picked ip one night coming home from a bar that I snuck in and older sister had me lie about my age. So we got in. I went there few times with friends before I was waiting outside about 1am or so and left the club as these two females one of was my friend and other liked me and wanted me to go home with her. I didn’t want to go back home with any of them. I waited outside almost 1:39am and no buses. Then a female in a green Chevy Nova ( I won’t ever forget that car) she drive by and asked me if I wanted a ride home. I thought I was safe as she looked harmless older female. She gets me to my house but mom wouldn’t let me in as it was after midnight. At her house which by coincidence she only lived like 5 blocks away she invited me for more drinks. Then I felt her hands and hot breath on me, kissing touching etc. I must of blacked out as I don’t remember much afterwards but waking up in her bed naked and afraid. So much happened the ought time where I ended up back at her house and she literally “kept me” in a downstairs bedroom and had men and female having sex with me and pay her It was too much for me. Parents dead and nobody I see as a best friend etc. Wasn’t slowed to have friends beside who this woman wanted me to. I’ve been in and out of Psych hospitals. I’ve tried to mill myself with 3 serious attempts ETC. I’ve been seeing therapists here and there but I never felt comfortable or something enough to tell them all what happened or they didn’t ask the right questions or I wasn’t ready. Didn’t know I could talk and had a voice as I wasn’t used to it. I too would either go into fright or freeze. And numerous times i “left my body” when various traumas was happening. I guess that happened automaticity as a way to protect myself? A few times I was able to flee from abuse at home but that was about it. I endured so much as there is so much so hurt and pain and shame etc. Even now with me being 50 now I seem to remember certain details of the various traumas like it was yesterday and some in quite details. I don’t remember a lot of my childhood and if there was some good times. I only seem to remember most of the bad stuff that happened and whatever stood out. I want to be able to remember. Throughout the various hit and misses, psych hospitalization a and suicidal attempts and hating and blaming myself etc and thinking I was the bad one and that something was wrong with me because so much happened to me. BUT I didn’t ask for sny of ths! And I’ve experienced so much and seen so much in my family and other friends etc to where I’m afraid and even can’t think of trying to have any meaningful relationships or friendships right now. I’m needing and wanting to get me together. Through many counsellors I’ve finally come across one who has skills and much experience in dealing with PTSD and various traumas and D.I.D. Which is what I’ve also been diagnosed with) and a few other things. She’s great and I feel like I have finally found the right one who knows about these various issues and how to work on them- us together. I hope we can do some amazing work together and she says she can help me and really think I can get better and overcome these stuff. I DONT see how right now so I gotta go on faith. I AM WONDERING what all of these would u consider as a little trauma or s bigger trauma? And how does one get out of being stuck in that flight fright or freeze or flight mode? I have ran out of therapy or other places where it was safe but my brain or body or some part of me didn’t know or feel that. I feel a hot mess but truly want to get at this and grow and heal so I can function and lead a more productive and happy life and THEIVE! Just wondering what were your thoughts?

  • Cash

    Cash

    October 24th, 2015 at 6:53 AM

    Is it not that trauma is trauma… what felt small to you can feel huge to someone else. Neither means that you sytill don’t need some help navigating those tricky waters of recovery.

  • Fruity

    Fruity

    October 25th, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    Ive heard of four types not 6. Some of these do seem duplicitous.

  • MHH

    MHH

    October 25th, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    Wow! I have my own traumas… as people do…just living. I am struck by the comments from people and wonder if therapists really understand the impact of some of the things mentioned on people. Loss of a relationship, pet, ptsd episodes, etc. can be totally devasting to people. I do think that some therapist categorize things…small t and big t… very strange to me. It is what they are taught in their training… not sure if many understand the overall impact. The therapists response is kind of dismissive to me.

  • David Lillie

    David Lillie

    October 25th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    This trauma article contains many problems which I don’t have the time to detail here. I recommend you look at the work of Peter Levine at traumahealing.com, or Pat Ogden at sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org or at Bessel van der Kolk traumacenter.org
    In particular, he wrote in an article: nytimes.com/2014/05/25/magazine/a-revolutionary-approach-to-treating-ptsd.html?_r=0
    Van der Kolk takes particular issue with two of the most widely employed techniques in treating trauma: cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves confronting patients over and over with what most haunts them, until they become desensitized to it. Van der Kolk places the technique “among the worst possible treatments” for trauma. It works less than half the time, he says, and even then does not provide true relief; desensitization is not the same as healing.
    ——————————
    My experience with trauma clients agrees with his comments. Find a good somatic therapist rather than someone who uses exposure therapy.

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    October 26th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    Hello, Everyone. Thank you all for your comments on the article and for those of you sharing your experiences with trauma. Writing about it can help process it, seeking therapy or additional support may be helpful in exploring the traumas further. My intention in describing big-t and little-t trauma was meant to show that people respond differently to traumatic experiences, certainly not to undermine or minimize what has been traumatic for anyone. What one person considers terribly traumatic may not affect another individual the same way, even if they experience the same event at the same time. It is possible to regain functioning and learn alternative ways to respond to the fight/flight/freeze mode that affects many people following a traumatic situation. Seeking out the right trauma-informed therapist who addresses your concerns in a way you feel comfortable discussing them can be helpful. Some people prefer to address trauma in a more direct way whereas others need to take steps to focus on other areas before addressing the trauma itself. There are definitely a variety of therapeutic models available (DBT, exposure therapy, solution-focused therapy, mindfulness, somatic, etc.) to help people with trauma and each therapist uses those models in different ways. It’s important to talk with a therapist before arranging an appointment to discover how the person will address your trauma and whether you feel safe and understood by the them.

  • Allyson D Platt LMHC

    Allyson D Platt LMHC

    October 26th, 2015 at 11:47 AM

    I work with kids and adults who have complex trauma — a lifetime of interpersonal violence, all “Capital T” stuff compounded, which causes lasting emotional, physiological and even physical effects. There is help available, and if you’re looking for a therapist, get some help in finding one that is experienced dealing with trauma and has a variety of treatment modalities available, because not all of them are right for every person. Exposure therapy has been shown to not only be least effective, it can be re-traumatizing. Area Child Advocacy Centers, who work with DA offices prosecuting crimes against children, is one good place to start looking for referrals. If you are calling a local community mental health center, ask if they have therapists with specific trauma training.

  • Dr.G

    Dr.G

    January 4th, 2016 at 9:34 AM

    Please be careful when providing information that is inaccurate. Research does not support your claims. Exposure treatments have been shown to be very helpful in reducing trauma symptoms. Tf-cbt is one of the leading treatments for children and it is an exposure based therapy. Same for Prolonged exposure, cognitive processing therapy, which are adult exposure based treatments. Exposure therapy reduces avoidance and numbing symptoms often experienced by individuals who have been exposed to trauma.

  • Eliz

    Eliz

    June 6th, 2016 at 9:56 PM

    Dr. G read Bessel van der Kolk on complex trauma where exposure therapy is counter indicated for complex trauma. One example being repeated, prolonged exposure as a child.

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