Trauma Re-Defined

“I’ve had a good life.”

The young man sitting across from me wears an expensive suit, his dark tie loosened. His face and neck splotch the shade of watermelon meat. He has no idea why he freaks out and loses his train of thought when it’s time to speak to his management team.

Vessels, from Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox, 2011

Vessels, from Flowers Reborn,    Deborah Cox, 2011

When I recommend trauma recovery, he narrows his eyes and cocks his head.

“I haven’t been traumatized,” he says.

We’ve all been traumatized. But some trauma looks like everyday experience. And some is completely invisible to the naked eye. Here’s a long answer to the question, what is trauma?

Trauma with a Capital T

When you think of trauma, you probably imagine Big T Trauma. Earthquakes. Military Combat. Rape. Child Abuse. Anything that threatens your life or well-being, which means any kind of child abuse and neglect, car accidents, house fires, tornadoes, and assault. Even if you witness these things happening to someone else, you experience vicarious Big T Trauma. Here are some examples.

  • Premature or unexpected death of your spouse or child.
  • Seeing your father hit your brother.
  • Being bullied, especially in childhood.
  • Finding someone who has committed suicide.
  • Being forced out of your home because of war, poverty, or other danger.
  • Witnessing violence between your parents.
  • Being left alone as a young child.

Big Ts trigger a storm of physiological reactions and unhelpful beliefs about the self – and we carry these bits forward in time, like the forgotten wads of Kleenexes and gum wrappers taking up space at the bottom of your purse. The horror you experience at the time of the event can forge a neural pathway between certain stimuli and the panic response. You drive through a particular part of town and notice nausea. You start to get close to someone and find yourself nit-picking them to death. You get depressed every spring. You start to succeed at work and then get sick and lose momentum.

trauma with a little t

When I was sixteen, my first real boyfriend dumped me. I cried for two days. My parents said I was ridiculous. They were actually glad we broke up because now I could focus more on schoolwork.

I count this experience as little t trauma for two reasons. (1) It involved a primary loss – loss of an important connection (I really liked this boy), and (2) It involved a secondary layer of disconnection (my parents shaming me for being so sad). What I needed back then was to be hugged and comforted, told I was still a desirable person and that everything would be okay.

Relational Disconnection (RD) invalidates our experiences, pulls us into a kind of humiliated or isolated space. It may look like no big deal to an outsider, but RD creates real distress.

Relational Disconnection is the epicenter of little t trauma. Here are some examples.
funky old purse

  • Being excluded in a social group: not being invited, discovering you’ve been left out, etc.
  • Watching your parents endure marital problems, especially if they’re chronic and unresolved.
  • Having a friend pull away or become unresponsive, unavailable.•Going through a breakup – particularly if the relationship was serious.
  • Living in a strained relationship.
  • Learning your partner has had an affair (This one may actually be both T and t).
  • Chronic loneliness: feeling you have no friends.

But this is just life, you say.

I know. We all have little t. But here’s the thing. Little t hurts us as deeply as Big T and leaves more enduring scars – more trash in the handbag. When a parent habitually looks away from her child’s pain, or says, stop your crying, that child endures chronic relational trauma. The whole body responds to this disconnect like it would to starvation – and the body’s response creates permanent or semi-permanent neural connections that burn maladaptive stress responses into the nervous system. It may seem like nothing to cry about, but Relational Disconnection shakes the foundations of our attachment world . . . which is to say, our sense of self and other.

Loneliness, and a sense of being misunderstood run through our life stories like an ink spill. Some of us manage pretty well in spite of T and t. But we function at a lower level than we might if we could offload the anxiety and shame of old experiences and then file them away. This lets us regain capacity for creative thought. We concentrate better. We write better stories and play better music. We sleep. We parent more effectively. We stop obsessing and start breathing deeply.