Trauma can be a really confusing experience that affects individuals in different ways. When we hear the word trauma it’s easy to think of the more obvious definition, but trauma comes in many different forms and not all traumatic memories or experiences are the same.
Trauma can be categorized into types based on its nature and impact. In this blog post, we will explore three distinct categories of trauma: Relational Trauma, Little “t” Trauma, and Big “T” Trauma. By understanding these differences, we can better grasp the diverse ways in which trauma affects people and how to support those who have experienced it.
What is Relational Trauma
Relational trauma, also known as attachment trauma, can manifest in various forms. However typically relational trauma occurs in consistent, long-term experiences of emotional, psychological, or physical abuse, neglect, or instability within significant relationships. These relationships may include family, romantic relationships, partners, caregivers, or close friends.
Some common causes of complex relational trauma include:
Complex Family Dynamics
Dysfunctional family systems, such as those characterized by experiences of physical or emotional abuse, as well as neglect during childhood, a family member or caregiver with addiction, codependency, or enmeshment, physical abandonment are all causes of Relational Trauma. Complex family members and dynamics can affect our emotional development since many times individuals with challenging family systems have not been modeled healthy relationships.
Survivors of domestic violence often endure chronic abuse within intimate relationships, causing Relational Trauma that can persist long after leaving the abusive situation.
Repeated experiences of being abandoned or rejected by caregivers or loved ones can result in deep-seated relational wounds. Abandonment is a profound and pervasive theme in relational trauma, deeply affecting individuals who have experienced it. Whether through physical absence or emotional neglect, abandonment in any form can leave lasting emotional scars.
Relational trauma stemming from repeated trauma or abandonment can lead to profound feelings of rejection, insecurity, and an enduring fear of further abandonment in future relationships. These traumatic experiences can distort one's self-worth and ability to trust others, often resulting in patterns of seeking out or recreating relationships that perpetuate the cycle of abandonment. Therapy for relational trauma often involves addressing these profound feelings of abandonment, working through the associated pain and fear, and helping individuals rebuild a sense of safety, trust, and self-worth in their interactions with others.
Betrayal of trust
Individuals who experience Relational Trauma often had their trust violated by those they relied on for emotional and physical care as children. As an adult, betrayal by someone considered trustworthy can damage a person or child's sense of of safety and trust in others.
Inconsistent attachment figures and emotional neglect
As a child, an individual may have had caregivers who were unpredictable in their behavior, causing anxiety and insecurity. Caregivers may not have been emotionally available or responsive to one’s needs, leaving them feeling unimportant or unloved.
Enmeshment a closely intertwined and blurred boundary between individuals in a intimate relationship that, can be closely related to relational trauma. Enmeshment often arises in families or intimate partnerships where personal boundaries become so diffuse that it becomes challenging for individuals to develop a healthy sense of self and autonomy.
This can result in a situation where one's identity and well-being are deeply entwined with the experiences and emotions of another. Enmeshment can be traumatic in itself, as it restricts an individual's ability to establish their own boundaries, make autonomous choices, and express their authentic self. Moreover, enmeshment can be a consequence of relational trauma, as it sometimes emerges as a coping mechanism for individuals who have experienced traumatic relationships in the past. Understanding the connection between enmeshment and relational trauma is crucial in therapeutic work, as addressing both issues is often necessary for individuals to reclaim their autonomy and build healthier, more balanced relationships.
Impact of Relational Trauma on Your Mental Health
The impact of Relational Trauma on an individual's mental health is profound and multi-faceted, affecting various aspects of their well-being. The consequences of childhood trauma, particularly in the realm of relationships, can be extensive:
Attachment Issues: Individuals who have experienced Relational Trauma often grapple with forming secure, healthy attachments in intimate relationships. The trauma can make it challenging to trust and connect with others on a deep emotional level, leading to difficulties in sustaining fulfilling relationships.
Emotional Dysregulation: Trauma survivors frequently struggle with emotional dysregulation, experiencing intense mood swings, anxiety, depression, and, at times, dissociation. These emotional fluctuations can hinder their ability to cope with stress and engage in healthy, stable relationships.
Self-Esteem Problems: Relational Trauma can deeply erode an individual's self-worth and self-esteem. The emotional scars of trauma may lead to pervasive feelings of shame and self-blame, undermining one's self-confidence and poor self esteem and-image.
Trust Issues: Survivors of Relational Trauma often grapple with profound trust issues. The experiences of betrayal or abandonment can create lasting emotional scars, making it challenging to trust others and even oneself. This lack of trust can hinder the development of deep, meaningful connections.
Reenactment: In a complex and often unconscious manner, some trauma survivors reenact the patterns of their past relationship trauma in their adult relationships. This reenactment can perpetuate a cycle of relational dysfunction, as individuals unknowingly replicate the dynamics they experienced during their traumatic early relationships. Recognizing and breaking these patterns is a significant challenge in the journey to healing from Relational Trauma.
Understanding these effects is a crucial step in addressing the mental health challenges stemming from Relational Trauma. Therapy and support can help individuals navigate these complexities, work through their ongoing trauma,, and develop healthier, more fulfilling relationships.
Know Your Trauma: Big "T" vs Little "t" trauma
Little “t” Trauma
Similar to Relational Trauma, Little "t" Trauma encompasses a wide range of negative emotions distressing experiences that may not be as overtly life-threatening as Big “T" traumas but still have a profound impact on our mental and emotional well-being. These experiences are often subjective, and what may be traumatic to one person may not be to another.
Some common Little "t" Trauma examples:
Childhood Emotional Neglect: Growing up in an environment where emotional needs are consistently unmet can leave lasting scars.
Bullying: Repeated harassment or exclusion in school or at work can erode self-esteem and confidence.
Toxic Relationships: Long-term exposure to manipulative or emotionally abusive partners or friends can cause emotional harm.
Loss and Grief: Coping with the death of a loved one or the end of a significant relationship can be a source of Little "t" Trauma.
Chronic Illness: Dealing with a prolonged health issue or watching a loved one suffer can be deeply distressing.
Financial Instability: Persistent financial difficulties can create a sense of powerlessness and insecurity.
Varied triggers: Little 't' traumas can encompass a wide range of experiences, including divorce, academic pressure, or discrimination.
Mental Health Impact of Little "t" Trauma
Little "t" Trauma can manifest in various ways, affecting both mental health issues our emotional and physical well-being. Some common signs of Little "t" Trauma include:
Anxiety and Depression: Persistent feelings of anxiety or depression that don't seem to have a clear cause.
Low Self-Esteem: A diminished sense of self-worth, often accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame.
Relationship Struggles: Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships due to trust issues or emotional barriers.
Negative Self-Talk: A habit of self-criticism and self-blame.
Emotional Dysregulation: Difficulty managing emotions, leading to emotional outbursts or emotional numbness.
Physical Symptoms: Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue, often s
temming from the stress response.
Big 'T' Trauma
Big 'T' Trauma, also known as acute trauma or major trauma, refers to significant and often life-threatening events that can shatter an individual's sense of safety and well-being. Some common examples of Big 'T' Trauma include:
Physical and sexual abuse: These acts involve direct harm or violence against an individual and often lead to severe and immediate trauma.
Natural disasters: Events like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis can cause widespread devastation and trauma on a large scale.
Combat experiences: Military personnel exposed to combat situations may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the extreme stress and danger they face.
Life-threatening accidents: Surviving a near-death experience, such as a car accident or a plane accident, can lead to Big “T” Trauma.
Mental Health Impact of Big “T” Trauma
Big "T" Trauma can have a wide-ranging and enduring impact on an individual or entire family's mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Some common consequences of big "T" trauma include:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Many individuals who experience Big "T" Trauma develop PTSD, characterized by intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety related to the traumatic event.
Depression and Anxiety: Trauma survivors often struggle with depression and anxiety disorders, which can affect their daily functioning and quality of life.
Substance Abuse: Some individuals turn to substance abuse as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotions and memories associated with Big "T" Trauma.
Dissociation: Dissociation involves a disconnection from one's thoughts, identity, consciousness, or memory. It can be a way to mentally escape the distressing impact of trauma.
Relationship Difficulties: Trauma can strain relationships, as survivors may struggle with trust issues, emotional regulation, and communication problems.
Physical Health Issues: Trauma can lead to physical health problems, including chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and increased risk of certain medical conditions.
Self-Harm and Suicidal Thoughts: Some individuals resort to self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts as a way to cope with the overwhelming emotional pain associated with Big "T" Trauma.
10 Strategies to Foster Healing from relational trauma
1. Talk Therapy with a Mental Health Professional:
Establishing a safe, trusting bond with a therapist is the cornerstone of recovery. Talking through your experience and developing a therapeutic alliance provides a secure space for individuals to explore their past, express their emotions, and work through their trauma.
2. Trauma-Informed Modalities:
Utilizing evidence-based modalities such as Dialetical Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Internal Family Systems or EMDR can aid in the processing and integration of traumatic memories. These are a few techniques to help clients heal from their traumatic experiences and reduce their emotional impact.
3. Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques:
Cognitive restructuring and behavioral interventions can help manage emotional dysregulation and challenge negative thought patterns. These tools empower individuals to regain control over their emotional responses.
4. Mindfulness Practices:
Mindfulness meditation and relaxation exercises can enhance emotional regulation and self-awareness. By grounding individuals in the present moment, they learn to manage overwhelming emotions more effectively. Being present in the moment in one of the most effective self care strategies to help you tune in your needs and start to care for your emotional needs.
5. Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem Building:
Cultivating self-compassion and practicing kindness towards your self can help rebuild self-esteem. This involves treating yourself with kindness and fostering a positive self-image, counteracting the negative beliefs that often result from relational trauma.
6. Healthy Boundaries:
Learning to establish and maintain healthy personal boundaries is vital for preventing future harm and managing relationships effectively. Clients are taught to assert their needs and protect their well-being, so they can develop healthier relationships.
7. Resilient Coping Strategies:
Equipping individuals with a toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms can help them manage triggers and stressors. This may involve techniques such as deep breathing, grounding exercises, or journaling.
8. Emotional Regulation Skills:
Developing emotional regulation skills enables individuals to navigate intense feelings without becoming overwhelmed. This may include identifying emotional triggers and employing strategies to self-soothe.
9. Rebuilding Trust:
Over time, the process of rebuilding trust, both in oneself and in others, is essential. This may involve guided exercises to address trust issues and practice forming healthier relationships.
10. Support Networks:
Encouraging clients to seek support from friends, family, or support groups can provide a sense of belonging and reinforce the healing process. Building a strong support network can help individuals feel less isolated and more understood.
By combining these strategies, individuals can embark on a comprehensive journey toward healing from relational trauma other mental health conditions, fostering resilience and a renewed sense of self in the process. The unique needs and experiences of each person should guide the selection and implementation of these approaches within the therapeutic context.
Trauma exists on a spectrum and all trauma is equally important when looking at the negative impact it has on individuals. As humans, it’s easy to compare traumatic events and minimize our own trauma responses or other’s experiences when looking at something that may seem larger. Despite the type of trauma you have experienced, all trauma deserves attention, the time to be processed, and healing. If you are ready to begin your journey of healing, schedule a phone consultation today.
Learning more about how to navigate the difficulties of you're facing through therapy, can help you both regain balance in your life and improve your mental well-being. Connecting with a therapist in San Jose, CA or San Juan, PR who can support you often benefits your own mental health as well as your help you navigate life's challenges. Reach out to Living Openhearted Therapy and Wellness to book a free consultation and learn more about therapy for adults.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maegan Jones, LCSW, ASW is a licensed clinical social worker in Puerto Rico and an associate social worker in California. She specializes in adults navigating difficult family dynamics, anxiety, relationship problems, and ADHD.
***The ideas, concepts, and opinions expressed in all Living Openhearted posts are intended to be used for educational purposes only. The author and publisher are not rendering medical or mental health advice of any kind, nor are intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any disease, condition, illness, or injury. Authors and publisher claim no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or damage as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material.
***If your are experiencing a mental health emergency you can call the National Suicide and Crisis Line at 988 or take them to the nearest emergency room.