What is the Difference Between Big T and Little t Trauma?

Dr. Janice Caudill, PhD, CSAT-S, CCPS-S, CPTT-S, PRT, IAT, SEP

What is Big T Trauma?

Most of us intuitively understand the concept of Big T traumatic events. These are the extraordinary events such as war, natural disasters, and being a victim of violence that lead to a wide range of symptoms associated with intense anxiety, depression, and shock or numbness. We use the word extraordinary not just because these events are rare, for most of us at least, but because they are beyond our ordinary ability to cope and regulate our emotions.

Big T traumas are the ones that would be disturbing to anyone. People who have experienced these events often suffer from acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Big T trauma can involve a single event or a chronic, repetitive series of events. Still, they are the kind of events that common sense dictates would be brutal to handle without some sort of emotional distress.

PTSD SYMPTOMS:

Witnessing, experiencing, or being confronted with an extraordinary traumatic event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror – or would have if these feelings weren’t masked by numbness or shock – during the event and resulted in symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal afterward.

Re-experiencing Symptoms:

·  Flashbacks

·  Nightmares

·  Intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or sensations

Avoidance Symptoms:

·  Avoiding objects, places, or activities that are reminders of the trauma

·  Emotional numbness

·  Guilt, depression, anxiety

·  Reduced interest in previously enjoyable activities

·  Inability to remember parts of the trauma

Hyperarousal and Emotional Reactivity Symptoms:

·  Being jumpy or easily startled

·  Feeling stressed, tense or on edge

·  Sleep problems like trouble falling or staying asleep, or difficulty allowing yourself to sleep due
fear of the nightmares.

·  Difficulty concentrating

·  Moodiness or anger outbursts

Negative Thoughts and Mood Symptoms:

·  Questioning your safety, ability, or worth

·  Blaming yourself for negative events that happen

What is Little t Trauma?

man struggling with addiction with wife and kid in the background experiences trauma

Little t traumas are the ones that are harder to recognize, as is their impact on you. These might be traumatic for one person but not necessarily for another. They include the daily hurts that occur across time and build on each other.

They’re the ones that others might not recognize for the traumas they are; you might not recognize why you’re feeling stressed or emotional either. These are defined as trauma because of your emotional reaction, not how your reaction compares to what someone else experiences.

Little t traumas are the ones that trigger you. They cause ongoing stress, anxiety, depression, or problems in your marriage and relationships. It’s as if you have a button on your body, and you go to a qualitatively different state of being when it gets pushed. Your body either revs up or shuts down. Your feelings are more intense than seem to fit the situation and might be more similar to the feelings of a 5-year-old than a 50-year-old. That’s because the hot button is attached to an old or many old hurts.

For some, the Little t hurts involve the kind of response we try to stuff down, but the hurts re-emerge sometime later when the button is pushed again, often without awareness of the connection with old wounds. Others may respond to the discomfort by some sort of impulsive, knee-jerk reaction and may take it out on someone else. If you are this type of responder, those are the reactions you have come to regret, the ones you end up sabotaging yourself with or causing problems for those you love.

Big T Traumas

  • War
  • Disaster
  • Rape
  • Childhood sexual or physical abuse
  • Major injury car wrecks
  • Crime victimization
  • Witnessing violence or death
  • Domestic violence

Little t Traumas

  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Failure experiences
  • Phobia related experiences
  • Losses
  • Learning problems
  • Stress at work or school
  • Lack of empathy from others
  • Bullying

For more information on trauma, please check out Trauma Healing and Understanding Your Trauma Triggers. Partners of Sex Addicts should check out Partner Betrayal Trauma and our Partners Empowerment Groups.


Dr. Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy and multi-day intensives for partners of sex addicts and wounded hearts struggling with sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma in the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.

All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, does not create a client-therapist relationship, and is not a substitute for care by a trained professional. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors, omissions, losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information.

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