Two Types of Psychological Trauma
When doctors and health care professionals talk about trauma, they’re referring to experiences that have led to injuries to the body, right? When therapists and mental health professionals talk about psychological trauma, we’re referring to wounds of the mind or heart.
That is, trauma is anything that causes an emotional injury. Any emotional pain that we feel is the result of trauma. We all have emotional pain because we all have experienced trauma.
While most of the folks I talk to about trauma understand this, what they may not know is that, broadly speaking, there are two types of psychological trauma: 1) acute trauma and 2) cumulative or relational trauma.
Trauma has everything to do with addiction. It’s common wisdom these days amongst addiction therapists that addiction and trauma go hand in hand. But knowing and loving a person who struggles with addiction can also be traumatic. In my next post, I’ll talk about how a partner’s discovery of a sexual addiction or a porn addiction can cause trauma. But for now, I wanted to share with you a little more about the two types of trauma, the same information I often share with clients.
Acute trauma or big “T” trauma is trauma that we usually associate with the most devastating varieties of human experience. They’re brief in duration but the impact is severe, for instance:
- Sexual assault
- Natural disaster
- Car or motorcycle accident
- Combat experiences (though in wartime, there can be many short conflicts in succession)
- Violent attacks or assault
- Terrorist attack
- Divorce or infidelity
- Witnessing any of these events or others like them that induce a similar sense of horror
Usually these events are extraordinary, isolated, and unusual, so that the individual who experiences the trauma feels helpless and without control over his environment.
Generally speaking, the greater this sense of helplessness, the greater the impact of the trauma. The effects of the trauma can be lessened significantly, though, if the individual has internal resources (e.g., emotional resiliency, ability to manage stress) and external resources (e.g.,supportive, attuned caregivers, family, or friends).
Cumulative or Relational Trauma
Small “t” trauma refers to the small, everyday events that create levels of stress that are too much for us to bear. We simply cannot cope with them. Usually, they can be short in duration and less severe than acute trauma, for instance:
- Emotional abuse
- Conflicts with a loved one
- A move
- Being fired from a job
- A breakup
- Divorce or infidelity
While small “t” trauma can be short and less severe, when this kind of trauma is experienced often or every day for years (as often happens to children in dysfunctional families), the consequences can be just as impactful as big “T” trauma. When this occurs, we call this trauma cumulative trauma because it accumulates over time.
Relational trauma is trauma that occurs in relationships (parent-child and couple relationships, most commonly). It’s not life-threatening and generally considered small “t” trauma, but as we’ll see in the next blog post, its effects can be just as destructive as big “T” trauma. That’s why I’ve listed “divorce or infidelity” in both categories.
Next time, then, we’ll look at how all of this relates to partners of sex and pornography addicts who have discovered their loved one’s addiction.
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