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Unlocking Healing: Understanding Big T and Little T Trauma

Man looking unhappy facing window with his hand on face sobbing at home

Sometimes, when you’ve experienced trauma, you try to convince yourself it wasn’t actually “that bad.” You may have thought, “Other people have experienced worse than me. Why do I have any right to feel upset?” 

No matter what level of trauma you’ve experienced, your feelings are valid. You don’t have to experience wartime combat to have trauma. It can happen from a singular event or series of smaller incidents that build up over time. It’s easier to understand the different types of trauma by thinking about them as “Big T” and “Little T” trauma. 

These different forms of trauma can also help you better understand intimacy disorders, like sex and pornography addictions, and how they occur.

Understanding Big T Trauma

Trauma is the response to an intense, distressing event in your life. Everyone’s experience and definition of trauma are different. It depends on many factors, like your past experiences, beliefs, morals, stress/pain tolerance, and ability to process experiences. 

“Big T” trauma is a largely impactful event where the person is left feeling helpless and lacking control in their environment. They have experienced either emotional or physical harm and felt powerless in the situation. 

Examples of Big T traumatic events include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Car accidents
  • Sexual assault 
  • Combat
  • School shootings
  • Sudden loss of a loved one

Big T trauma can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can experience vivid flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts or images, uncontrollable physical responses, panic, extreme alertness, and intense anxiety. Your nervous system can continue to react even after the danger has subsided. Your brain is fighting for control after having lost it. It’s not yet figured out how to process the traumatic event, so it responds as if it’s living it in real time. 

You may continue to go into fight or flight mode when something triggers your trauma, even long after the traumatic event. This looks like:

  • Fight. When your body knows you’re in danger, it springs into fight mode, urging you to attack in self-defense. You may feel intense anger, tightened muscles, a burning or knotted sensation in your core, and the urge to hit something.
  • Flight. An adrenaline rush hits, and your body knows it’s time to go. You’ll feel fidgety, restless, and tense. Your arms and legs can go numb, and you’ll feel a desperate need to escape.
  • Freeze. When you freeze, your body feels stuck in place. It’s an instinctual reaction to your body, knowing it can’t flee or flight. You may feel a sense of dread or numbness. Your skin pales, and your heart rate slows down. It feels impossible to move your body.
  • Fawn. This response is when you try to please the person responsible for the trauma to save yourself. You act like a people pleaser to try to protect yourself.

Understanding Little T Trauma

“Little T” trauma refers to distressing events or a series of events that affect you emotionally, but they aren’t at the same one-time magnitude of death or near death as Big T events. Every person will experience trauma differently, so Little T events are defined by how they affect the individual rather than what actually occurred. 

Little T events can still cause significant emotional damage, especially if occurring during childhood or adolescence. During that time, your brain hasn’t matured enough to properly process traumatic events, which is why these events can impact your development into adulthood. 

Little T events can feel inconsequential or like annoyances in the moment. But over time, they build upon each other, orchestrating a trauma response to any trigger that reminds you of the events.

Examples of Little T traumatic events include:

  • Injury
  • Infidelity
  • Divorce
  • Bullying
  • Racism
  • Emotional abuse
  • Financial worries
  • Legal trouble 
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of significant relationships
  • Job loss 
  • Chronic illness

The primary difference in Little T trauma is that it accumulates over time. It can still cause PTSD and fight or flight responses, just like one-time, major traumatic happenings. 

Comparing Big T and Little T Trauma

Because your brain’s trauma response is the same, regardless of the magnitude of the traumatic experience, the symptoms of emotional trauma from Big T and Little T traumas are the same. 

Both Big T and Little T trauma can cause feelings of helplessness, shame, fear, and a lack of power or control. In situations like experiencing a natural disaster or partner betrayal, both make you feel out of control. While one may feel more life-altering than the other, it’s important to remember that trauma builds on past experiences. If you have been betrayed before or were completely caught off guard by the betrayal, this event can be incredibly significant to your emotional well-being. 

Some experts hesitate to even differentiate Big T and Little T traumas because they don’t want people to believe that one type is worse than the other. The truth is that traumatic happenings come in all shapes and sizes, and people respond to them differently. But emotional trauma is still the same for those experiencing it. It’s life-changing, regardless of what caused it.  

The Relationship Between Trauma and Sex Addiction

When you’ve experienced a traumatic event, you need something to bring you relief. Sexual release gives your brain a dopamine hit it’s desperately craving. Even once things have gone back to “normal,” your brain has learned adverse behaviors from that trauma. It will continuously need a “fix” to block out the pain and anxiety. 

The link between trauma and sex addiction is clear. When you can’t make peace with your feelings, you turn to the only thing that offers relief. The more you do it, the more it trains your brain to need that behavior. It’s a relentless cycle that can quickly become an addiction.

Not every person who experiences trauma will develop a sex addiction, but there is enough of a connection to say that some people will, and they will need sex addiction treatment to heal. 

Healing From Trauma

Overcoming and healing from trauma requires first acknowledging what happened to you and recognizing it as a traumatic event, which can be difficult for those who never learned how to express their emotions and avoid their feelings. It requires understanding your mind and body’s automatic response to trauma, recognizing any harmful coping mechanisms, and being vulnerable. It’s not easy, but it is possible. 

At Begin Again Institute, we approach all treatment trauma-informed. We recognize that past traumatic experiences can result in sex addiction, which is why we focus on healing from the trauma instead of just treating the symptoms. 

Guided by a mental health professional on our team, you’ll work on processing the trauma, stopping harmful behaviors, and learning healthy coping mechanisms. 

Sex addiction prevents you from being your most authentic self. When you suppress the feelings surrounding your emotional wounds, it prevents you from being truly vulnerable and intimate with another person. 

You can relearn to form healthy relationships, but it requires first uncovering and coping with the past. It won’t be easy to bring difficult memories to the surface, but it’s the only way to find lasting, transformative healing.

How BAI Can Help

Whether you’ve experienced a Big T traumatic event or a series of Little T happenings, trauma is pervasive and life-altering. If you want a treatment program that helps you achieve emotional relief in a judgment-free environment, Begin Again Institute can help. 

We offer intimacy disorder treatment, including treatment for sex and pornography addictions, with an unprejudiced mindset, so you’ll always feel safe in our care. If you’re ready to change your life, give us a call today.

  • Category: Mental Health
  • By Begin Again Institute
  • May 13, 2024

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