Brooke* walked into my office and immediately curled up in a corner of the couch. This defensive posture was how she preferred to sit when she came to see me. For her, it was routine. It was safe.
As a counselor, I had worked with Brooke for several months to unpack the tangled mess of her failed marriage.
Brooke had met the love of her life, or so she thought. They married. But when her husband left her for another woman, Brooke came to me for counsel.
When Brooke reflected on her relationship during our sessions together, she often became frustrated with herself for not recognizing the signs of an unhealthy marriage sooner. “He never hit me or abused me,” she said. “It wasn’t like the people I hear about on the news.” Yet as we talked about her experience, Brooke disclosed that he was harsh and condescending with his words and manipulative and abusive to her emotionally.
A few months into her counseling, Brooke revealed that she had a difficult time falling asleep at night. When she did sleep, she frequently woke up in a cold sweat but could never remember what she had dreamed about. After researching her symptoms, I realized Brooke was experiencing the body’s natural stress response to trauma — symptoms similar to those of someone dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. When I explained this to Brooke, she balked at the idea initially. “I haven’t been assaulted or abused physically,” she said. “I grew up in a wonderful home. How could I have trauma?”
As I explained how our bodies have an innate ability to protect themselves from adverse stimuli and that a trauma response is this protective instinct in action, she began to understand how her experience with her ex-husband was traumatic in nature. She had experienced small t trauma.
The difference between big T and small t trauma
Not all traumatic experiences are equal, but the way the body reacts to trauma is similar in every situation. Let’s break down the differences between trauma with a capital T and trauma with a small t .
Big T trauma
Major-event trauma includes highly distressing experiences such as sexual assault, rape, combat, a serious car accident, etc. This type of trauma is directly linked to a perceived life-and-death situation. When an individual experiences an event like this, his or her entire being shifts into survival mode. A heightened sense of awareness is developed where no person, place, situation or event ever feels completely safe.
Small t trauma
Minor-event trauma includes experiences such as bullying, non-life-threatening injuries, emotional manipulation and abuse, etc. The trauma in these experiences can be subtle. For instance, Brooke’s husband had humiliated and made fun of her in front of friends and family. He made her feel incompetent and stupid if the house was not cleaned and dinner was not on the table when he got home from work. He yelled and screamed at her if things were not perfect and then drew her close afterward in an attempt to reconnect. This type of psychological and emotional abuse combined with manipulation manifested itself as trauma in Brooke. Her life was not in immediate danger like those who experience a major-event trauma, but her survival instincts responded similarly. Even though the external factors of big T and small t trauma are different, the internal results can be the same.
Essentially, when a traumatic event occurs, either big T or small t, the mind abandons the normal method for processing sensory experiences and instead goes into a protective mode. What should have been processed as a memory becomes a fragmented struggle for survival. In other words, the entire traumatic event is broken up into its sensory pieces, and the natural fight-or-flight response is activated. If the trauma is not processed effectively through counseling, the body will hold on to the idea that it is not safe and will seek to protect itself at all costs. This is where triggers come from.
A trigger response occurs when the body reacts to a sensory signal in the individual’s environment such as a smell, taste, sound or tone of voice. For example, if you’ve ever been in a car accident, you will not forget the smell from the release of the airbag. Months after the event, you might catch the scent of something similar, and that signal will immediately send you back to the traumatic memory of the car accident. The body cannot distinguish between the current sensory experience and the original trauma. If left untended, post-traumatic stress disorder can develop as the body strives for survival.
Brooke’s struggle with sleep, her subconscious defensive postures and her nightmares were signs that her body was still operating in the fight-or-flight mode. Digging a bit deeper into her memories, Brooke shared that most of the conflict and emotional abuse from her husband happened in the evening right before she went to bed. We were able to effectively pinpoint her triggers and through Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, Brooke was released from her trauma response and she regained her life.
To be clear, not every difficult situation in life can be traced back to a traumatic experience. We are resilient human beings created in the image of God. We all have a story, and we all make choices about how we interact or react within our story. Unfortunately, sometimes our stories include traumatic events that lead to physical responses, which affect our lives greatly. If you or your spouse may be struggling with the effects of trauma, I encourage you to seek professional support.
Dr. Mark A. Mayfield has been a counselor to families, couples and at-risk teens since 2008. He is the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
*Name has been changed.
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