Trauma is any event, experience, or situation that overwhelms our ability to cope and process what’s happened to us. Whether it’s a one-time event or something that happens repeatedly over time, the trauma becomes so deeply devastating and hurtful on a mental, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual level that we lose a sense of ourselves. If trauma goes unresolved, it can get stored in our systems—our bodies, minds, and nervous systems—causing long-lasting effects in our lives.
So, what causes this trauma that ruptures our well-being?
If rape, physical assault, experiencing a genocide or war, living through a natural disaster, or being in a terrible accident like a car crash came to mind first, you’re not alone. Many people—ourselves included—immediately associate trauma with horrific experiences.
While that’s true, it’s not the full story. Every therapist, psychologist, psychotherapist, and healer
explained that trauma is far more wide-ranging than most people realize. They divided it into two categories:
“Big T” traumas
“Little t” traumas
Let’s look closer at each.
Big T Traumas
“Big T” traumas are frightening, disturbing, and often life-threatening events. They can happen once or multiple times. Some of the most common forms of “Big T” traumas include:
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Domestic violence
- Natural disasters
- Accidents, physical trauma, or injury
- Death or loss of a child
- Mass shootings
- Witnessing a “Big T” event (watching anyone go through something horrific or tragic and not being able to control it)
- Experiencing a pandemic or other large societal event
Little t Traumas
“Little t” traumas are often prolonged, happen repeatedly, and are commonly dismissed. Some typical “Little t” traumas can include:
- Emotional abuse
- Developmental trauma (this occurs during childhood when we are still developing)
- Verbal abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Betrayal (such as being cheated on)
- Being shamed
- Death or loss of a loved one, including a pet
- Chronic stress and feeling overwhelmed
- Being bullied or harassed
- Experiencing a pandemic
“Little t” traumas are so varied and can seem so “minor” to us that we often don’t realize the damage. For example, you could experience a “Little t” trauma when your boss says something that shames you during a staff meeting or you find out your wife has been having an affair.
Sometimes, it’s the stacking of “Little t” traumas that cause damage. Brandy Gillmore, a mind, body, and energy expert with a Ph.D. in natural medicine, explained this concept perfectly. “If I have a little scratch on my arm, that’s trauma to my skin. It’s not the worst trauma in the world, and one little scratch might not be a big deal. But then you get twenty more little scratches, then thirty, then forty, and those start adding up.”
All Trauma Matters
Whether it’s “Big T” or “Little t,” it’s about dealing with the trauma you’ve experienced so you can heal from it and move forward in your life.
Whatever you’ve experienced matters, and it needs to be healed. Judging our trauma only leads us to judge ourselves, making our journeys to recovery and resiliency more difficult. Right now, we’re not asking you to feel differently about your trauma. But for a moment, we invite you to see your trauma as neither big nor small, bad or less bad, painful or less painful.
Your trauma just is, and all trauma matters equally.
Stored in the Mind and Body
Your nervous system is the bridge between your mind and body.
It sends and receives countless messages from one to the other that will determine your body’s responses. Think walking, talking, swallowing, blinking, chewing, moving your hands, wiggling your toes, breathing, and all the other actions and movements that happen that we’re both conscious of (standing from a chair and walking to the kitchen for a glass of water) and unconscious of (breathing or swallowing).
Our nervous system operates in two states:
- Parasympathetic, also known as rest and digest, regulates digestion and elimination processes, energy recovery, and relaxation.
- Sympathetic controls our fight, flight, or freeze response during a perceived stressful or dangerous experience. Think of this as your defense system.
You can’t be in both states at the same time. You switch into sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) mode when your internal alarm system, called the amygdala, senses danger. The amygdala sits in a part of the brain responsible for processing emotion and everything from sights to sounds to smells that you’re exposed to.
When it senses a threat, it triggers your body’s fear response by sending an “Alert! Danger!” message to your nervous system, which in turn flips into the sympathetic state. In this mode, the hormone adrenaline floods your system. Your heart races, your pupils dilate, and you sweat more. Your blood gets redirected from certain organs and processes like digestion to your extremities so you’re prepared to fight, flee, or freeze. This is all normal and natural, and your body is doing what it was designed to.
Here’s where our story goes sideways. In a perfect world, as soon as the threat passes, you would discharge, or release, all the excess energy that was created. You’d process your threatening experience and let it move through your body so that you could return to the parasympathetic rest-and-digest state.
You see this demonstrated in the wild. A lion will chase an antelope. It’s running for its life, adrenaline coursing through its legs, senses heightened, and it escapes. Once it’s no longer in danger, the antelope will start shaking, convulsing, and contorting its body. What looks like a seizure is actually the antelope discharging and shaking off its extra energy so it can move from the fight, flight, or freeze state back into the parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode.
In our modern world, we don’t shake it out or process the experience. We ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen, or convince ourselves we’re over it. We can bury our past traumas in unhealthy behaviors. And sometimes what we use to avoid and numb ourselves from our pain can turn into addictions, which cause even more harm to ourselves and the people we love.
Nothing we do will discharge the energy that was created, but it still has to go somewhere. That somewhere is in muscles, joints, tissues, and fascia in our necks, shoulders, hips, lower backs, and anywhere else our bodies can find to store it.
To be clear, that storing still doesn’t make the trauma go away. Think of it as a giant boulder that gets dropped into a stream. The water doesn’t go through the rock, it goes around it. Well, your body has to adapt and learn to go around this trauma boulder that’s come out of nowhere.
Treating The Mind
Therapies focused on the mind can help you uncover any false beliefs and damaging stories that were created about the world, people, and yourself to help deal with the traumas. By identifying and acknowledging the inner tales, you can help rewrite and reframe them. It’s a way to process and make sense of what happened while creating a new vision for the world around you.
Many of these therapies have fundamentally changed people’s outlook on life and themselves forever. And bonus, many therapies teach tools and techniques you can use outside the therapist’s office. Not only do you resolve the previous traumas, you build resiliency to protect you from future experiences too.
Two of the therapies that came up multiple times in our interviews included:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Psychoanalytic Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Trauma often rewrites our thoughts, twisting them into negative stories and beliefs we create about ourselves, the world, and people. These negative thoughts lead to negative emotions. Often, we’re not even aware of our thoughts or emotions. They just happen. Over time, all of these negative thoughts and emotions impact our body and our spirit, dragging us down, keeping us in pain, and making life feel dark.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talk therapy that gets at the negative thoughts around our trauma and the stories and beliefs we create from them. If we can change the story and the words we use, then we can change our lives.
How powerful are words? Try this. Close your eyes and say no, ten times. Notice how your chest, arms, legs, stomach, and entire body feel when you say that word.
Now close your eyes again and say yes ten times. Notice the difference?
When we say no, our body involuntarily tenses. When we say yes, it relaxes, and we soften and gently open.
This is part of what CBT teaches. It shows you how to notice the negative script that’s constantly playing in the background of your life and then flip it to something positive. Dr. Carl Totton, a clinical psychologist, uses a practice called snap, stop, notice, and pause. “If you can stop that negative path of thinking, notice it, and then you can begin to rewrite the script,” Dr. Totton explained.
“You can change the narrative. You can do positive reframes from cognitive behavioral therapy.”
Dr. Totton said if we can just catch ourselves as soon as we think or feel bad, it can go a long way toward creating a new experience of life and rewriting the trauma script that got written.
CBT is used to help treat many ailments, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, grief, and chronic illness. We should note that if you have suffered a “Big T” trauma and you have a strong terror or fear physiological response that’s stored in your body, by itself, CBT probably won’t get you all the way to releasing that pain. CBT is great to move you out of the negative thinking and self-talk, but you’ll need something to help your body let go—just telling it to, unfortunately, won’t work.
If you’re interested in CBT, you may also want to check out a body-based therapy or start with one of the mind-body treatments such as EMDR.
Do “Little t” traumas haunt you? If so, then you may want to consider psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Therapists trained in this practice will sit with their clients and feel from them what kinds of developmental and potential early traumas they have experienced that have shaped their view of themselves, others, and the world.
According to psychologist Dr. Sam Rader, psychoanalysis tries to address the first five years of life, not by analyzing with our brains but by allowing us to have a new experience of those formative years using the therapist as a stand-in for “good enough” caregivers.
“The ways [clients] engage with the world is a reflection of their early experience, then they bring that way of engaging into the room with [therapists],” explained Dr. Rader. “That’s what we call transference, and even though it can be quite painful for them to project their early material onto us, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to slow it down and give the client a new experience.”
For example, if you didn’t feel heard or seen as a child, then in this therapy setting the therapist will validate, acknowledge, and meet those needs as you had wanted from your parents or primary caregiver. “We give them what they didn’t get back, and then reparent them, and they come out of the work less traumatized, more whole, more integrated, and more of who they really are,” shared Dr. Rader.
Treating The Body
At the age of 14, William Hufschmidt, a yoga teacher and bodyworker who practices time massage and structural integration (also known as Rolfing), was in a car accident. He barely survived. He had the jaws of life used on him, and he spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from injuries to his leg, which was left shattered and mangled from his ankle up to his groin.
Now in his fifties, he has spent his life healing and giving himself opportunities to grow from his traumatic experience. Yet even today, the repercussions are still vibrant in his body—even if he’s not conscious of them.
“I’m doing a lot of work with the scar on the side of my leg, and it brings up an incredible amount of emotion,” he shared with us. “I’ve had memories come up of lying in the hospital bed, of being back in the car, and this is thirty-six years later. Memories are coming up that I haven’t even considered before.”
Bodywork is a way to reconnect with your body. The road to recovery is learning how to be at home in our physical selves, to feel and notice what our body’s saying, and to be aligned with it. Bodywork can be a gentle walk back to your physical self, creating greater awareness and connection for you. “We can talk about bodywork as an opportunity,” said William. “Instead of me doing something to my client, my intention is to summon them to that place in their body that my hands are. I’m bringing their awareness to the tissue.”
For some of us, feeling pleasure is hard. We may have come from a strict religious upbringing that taught us feeling good was bad, or we may have been physically harmed. Bodywork can then help retrain our bodies and minds that touch, physical sensation, and pleasure are actually okay.
Bodywork comes in many forms and often with specialties and subcategories. Some of the more common bodywork therapies the experts continually mentioned included:
- Massage therapy (Deep Tissue, Shiatsu, Swedish, Reflexology)
- Myofascial release
- Craniosacral release
- Acupressure or acupuncture
- Rolfing (combines myofascial release with movement)
- Floatation (when you’re floating in a saltwater bath in a deep tank, in sensory deprivation with no sound and darkness, and all you do is focus on your breath and relaxing)
Because of the hands-on nature of this therapy, it’s even more important that you find someone you can trust, relax, and feel safe with. Sometimes this may take a few sessions as both you and your bodyworker get used to each other.
For many people, regular bodywork plays a big part in their resiliency practices. Some people will go once a month to their chiropractor or massage therapist for tune-ups, but how often you use bodywork depends on your unique journey. If you can, try to explore different therapies. See what feels right to your body, and remember that what you may use today can change in five years or it could be in your life forever.
There’s no right or wrong here—there’s only what’s right for you.