The Difference Between 'Big T' & 'Little T' Trauma ​— And Why It Matters How It Feels To *You*

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young Asian woman looking serious is a cafe

All trauma isn’t created equal, right? 

We think that a "Big T" trauma is something huge, like a death in the family, getting a divorce, being in a car accident, war or bankruptcy, to name a few. It's also considered "Big T" trauma when it has a beginning and an end, like the examples before.

We think a "Little T" trauma is smaller, like a breakup, not getting accepted into the college of our choice, fighting with a friend, slipping on ice, or losing our phone, to name a few.

In actuality, "Little T" traumas are events that don't have a set end point, or go on for a long time. Not a tornado or an avalanche, but still possibly traumatizing.



These terms have become common shorthand when talking about trauma, which is helpful to many people. But qualifying some as "big" and some as "small" means people believe these traumas should affect us differently, and that we whould heal from them dramatically differently.

Big T should be harder and take longer to heal, Little T should be easier, just based on the name. Right? 

Not exactly!

RELATED: The Surprises You Might Discover When Peeling Away The Layers Of Trauma

How to recognize trauma when you feel it

According to the APA, trauma is defined as "Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster."

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, writes about a therapist friend who was offering to counsel a group of Cambodian refugees, refugees who "had suffered the worst of what humans can inflict on each other — genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives …”

Her friend was worried that she would not be able to help these people with their "Big T" trauma.

So, when she started engaging with them, what did she discover they were talking about? The book explains: 

“It was all: I met this guy when I was living in the refugee camp, and we fell in love. I thought he really loved me, but then we were separated on different boats, and he took up with my cousin. Now he is married to her, but he says that he really loves me, and he keeps calling me, and I know I should tell him to go away, but I still love him and I can’t stop thinking about him … ”

In other words, for these people, what we might think of as a "Little T" trauma actually felt way worse (at least on the surface) than the things that we imagine to be a "Big T" trauma.

Surprising right?

RELATED: How Trauma Affects Your Physical Body — 4 Steps You Need To Take To Heal

Is it a 'first-world problem?'

I have so many clients who are struggling with the things that we might define as a "Big T" trauma or a "Little T" trauma and, almost without exception, these clients feel shame that the things that might be perceived as a "Little T" trauma are things that they are struggling to manage.

They often say that their "Little T" trauma is a "first-world problem" because it's often not seen as immediate or quite as dangerous.

If there are so many people in the world who struggle with war and violent crimes, how can their little trauma compare and how can they justify their suffering?

My response? That for each person, a trauma is unique and is best described by the individual who is experiencing it. 

What might seem like serious trauma to one person may be easily healed by one person, while what seems like it's small would be much tougher to heal — especially the type of Little T trauma that goes on for a long time.



RELATED: 4 Subtle Ways Childhood Trauma Affects You As An Adult (Even If You Think You're Over It)

Trauma is not one-size-fits-all

For example, when my husband left me for another woman, I was devastated. My father had left me when I was a child and, my whole life, I had lived in fear of being left again.

My friends told that it wasn’t such a big deal because we had been unhappy for so long and his leaving was the best thing that could have happened to me. And that might have been true. The ongoing unhappiness may have been a "Little T" trauma, but his actual departure was a ‘Big T’ trauma for me.

On the other hand, these Cambodians, who had been through what was, for most people in the world, a "Huge T" trauma (so to speak), needed to process what the rest of us might see as a minor loss — a failed love affair.

It is important that we recognize that our traumas are unique to us. That our traumas are often based on things that have traumatized us in the past or things that have always been triggers for us and that might make them more difficult to process now.

RELATED: Stop Minimizing The Impact Of Trauma

What matters — how big (or little) is your trauma?

My worst fear, truly, is getting caught in an avalanche — what I perceive to be a "Big T" trauma. A good friend of mine was recently caught in one and she just wrote it off as an exciting experience. I mean, seriously?

My point in all of this is to not judge yourself for the level of your trauma or how you are recovering from it. Trauma is nuanced, and a continuous "Little T" trauma may affect you more than a short, singluar "Big T" trauma. We all need to understand that it’s not the size of the trauma that matters but the depth of how we experience it.

If we minimize our trauma and write it off as insignificant, it will only resurface somewhere down the line and make another trauma even harder to deal with.

So, next time any trauma comes along in your life or you become aware of one that's been occurring, don’t ignore it or belittle it.

Embrace it as something that you need to deal with and get rid of so that it won’t affect you in the future when what you might see as a “Big T" trauma comes along.

RELATED: 10 Red Flags I Couldn’t See I Had Until I Had Trauma Therapy

Mitzi Bockmann is a certified life and relationship coach. She has over 10 years of experience in helping people find happiness in life and love.