Small Traumas Can Lead to Big Problems, Too

woman sitting and thinkingSometimes trauma work is not just about resolving major traumatic events in one’s life. Life is full of small traumas that most of us do not perceive as extremely distressing. When someone comes to therapy for posttraumatic stress, it is fair to assume that he or she likely experienced a very traumatic event (or events), but that’s not always the case. As I don’t exclusively treat PTSD, I also see people who come in to address depression, anxiety, and difficulty adjusting to changing stressors in their lives.

As we get into the therapy work, more often than not I find that these people are experiencing symptoms that resulted from a less obvious traumatic experience that has brought on negative thoughts or beliefs about the world, other people, or themselves. We end up doing trauma work to resolve those beliefs, which contribute to their anxiety and depression. Generally, clients are surprised to make this discovery.

What qualifies as a less traumatic event that might result in experiencing symptoms such as depression or anxiety? Here is an example that is not uncommon:

A child grows up in a loving family. She has one older sibling and one younger. There is no significant trauma in her life, and her parents are responsible and caring. The oldest sibling is very smart and excels in school. He often receives praise from his parents about his accomplishments. He also demands his parents’ attention, as he is assertive and outgoing. The youngest sibling tends to be emotionally needy, so she gets a lot of attention. The middle child is an average student, but is highly intelligent and has a laid-back, easygoing personality. Her parents appreciate this about her as they don’t have to worry after her and can focus more in other areas. However, as this child grows up, she begins to develop the belief that her parents prefer her siblings. She also develops the belief that she is not as smart as her oldest sibling because she does not excel in school.

The child in the above scenario has not experienced any significant trauma in her life. Her parents were good parents, but were distracted by her siblings and, as she appeared to be fine due to her laid-back personality, they did not worry about her. Although they appreciated her easygoing nature, they didn’t always think about saying so. She eventually seeks therapy due to feeling depressed and inadequate as well as a lack of confidence.

From a trauma therapy perspective, the small traumas and resulting negative beliefs would be a good place to start addressing her current symptoms, as that is likely the root of her issues—particularly the lack of confidence.

It is fair to say all of us have experienced a small trauma that led to some sort of negative belief that, in turn, affected how we see, interact with, or feel about the world or ourselves. These small traumas don’t have to be devastating, and most of us continue functioning well. If you do begin to experience symptoms that are bothersome, such as a lack of confidence, mild depression or anxiety, getting into therapy can help you discover if any of these small traumas are the culprit. These small traumas and resulting beliefs are very treatable through several modalities of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), among others.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Randee

    October 30th, 2013 at 11:05 AM

    Sometimes it feels so strange how the smalles things in life can powerfully have a huge impact on you, even larger than what others would perceive as bigger crises.
    I don’t know about others but it is the small mindless chatter that I always seem to let bother me, whereas the huge problems, the things that others would crumble under those are the places where I get my strength, buckle down, and get ready to resolve a problem.
    I guess it is my own little feelings of being inadequate that I let shut me down in the most petty of ways but in other places where I know I am strong, then I just get busy and get those areas taken care of.

  • Amy Jane

    October 31st, 2013 at 3:12 AM

    Great post! I like the suggestions.

  • Carlton

    October 31st, 2013 at 3:47 AM

    We just need to be mindful that even though something may seem small to us from the outside, to the one experiencing it it could be something very significant.

  • Susanne Hart

    November 1st, 2013 at 1:16 AM

    Context is everything. This is exactly the kind of scenario that leaves people thinking that there must be something wrong with them for feeling anxious or depressed, which just compounds everything.

  • lawson s

    November 1st, 2013 at 3:46 AM

    Children are quite impressionable and things that you may think as a parent would have very little impact on them, I think that we can see from the example written about here that they often have a far greater impact than what we may have thought. So yeah, this might have been nothing to some of us but for this child it left her feeling unworthy even though this is, I am sure, never what the family would have intended.

  • Anastasia Pollock

    November 4th, 2013 at 11:46 AM

    I agree that it is so interesting that even the smallest of events can lead to lifelong problems. It is not uncommon that the smaller issues can actually seem more overwhelming as they can affect us in every area of our lives. Randee, you give a great example of feeling inadequate, which I have found to be very common.

    I also agree that children are so very impacted by the events that happen around them. Being more aware as parents and talking regularly to our children can make all the difference in long run, helping them to grow up mentally and emotionally healthy.

    Thank you all for reading and for sharing your comments!


  • Rhonda

    August 7th, 2018 at 7:29 PM

    I have very small breasts and have to have oral sex with many men to feel like I am a woman.
    I go to bars and get drunk and find myself in the parking lot giving oral sex to men I just met.
    I need to make my self feel degraded in order to feel I can keep a man, I now have HIV and HPV and still and giving oral sex to men without protection.
    My ex boyfriend has posted online about me having unprotected sex as well as pics I have sent him and a video of me giving him oral sex.
    I now am in deep depression as everyone at my work Morrow County Hospital has seen these pics and my daughter is devastated as EVERYONE at her school will know about it and I fear she might do something drastic and its all on me for being a slut.
    How do I fix this ?

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