There are two definitions of trauma—qualifying events listed in the DSM V, which are often called “Big T” Traumas. These include threatened or actual injury, death or sexual assault, and exposure can be direct, witnessed, or something that happened to a friend or relative.
Then there is any other type of event which exceeds our capacity to cope, and can be stored as trauma. Examples can include divorce, job loss, an abrupt move, really anything that overwhelms us. I find it helpful to think of trauma as the experience, rather than the exposure.
Why It’s About the Experience
In a previous article, I describe how trauma memories are stored. To some degree, it doesn’t matter what propels us into fight-flight-freeze mode, but only that the event was experienced and then stored that way. When does it matter? Studies tell us that when the violence is interpersonal, particularly from someone we know or trust, and if the exposure is chronic or repeated, then the severity and type of symptoms that we experience can change. Otherwise, it seems to depend on the individual’s previous experiences, baseline functioning, genetic makeup and other factors not yet understood.
For example, let’s say that two people are at different pool parties and both are thrown into the pool at their respective gatherings. One person experiences this as fun and friendly and the other experiences this as terrifying and is activated into the fight-flight-freeze response. What would explain these different responses? I’m sure you can think of many, such as inability to swim, previous experiences with being man-handled, relationship with the person doing the throwing, power dynamics in the party attendees, and plenty of others.
When Things Get Complicated
One aspect that can make recovery from little-t traumas more difficult is the difficulty in explaining them and thus getting support for them. It would be difficult for the person above to describe what, exactly, was so terrifying about the experience and they may be disinclined to talk about and even feel pressured to pretend that it was enjoyable. The accompanying shame and guilt regarding their reaction would then compound the trauma response.
When Children are Exposed to Trauma
I’ve seen children’s exposure to violence toward a caregiver described as vicarious trauma and severe neglect of a child described as little-t trauma. Neither description is accurate. For children, the health and well-being of their caregiver is synonymous with their own. If the caregiver is threatened, then the child experiences this as being threatened, meaning that their exposure is direct exposure to injury and death. Same goes for a child who is neglected. Because children are unable to meet their own basic needs—why we as a society require them to have caregivers—when those needs aren’t being met, this is also experienced as a threat of injury or death. For children, many “little-t traumas” are in fact matters of life and death.