We all have ‘tiny t’ traumas – and they could be having a bigger impact on your mental health than you realise.
When we think about the concept of trauma, we often think of big, life-changing events. You know – the kind of stuff that not only impacts us in the short term but leaves long-lasting emotional and psychological scars.
But these ‘big T’ traumas – as they are sometimes referred to by psychologists – are not the only kind of traumas that exist.
Indeed, while many people will go through life without being affected by a big T trauma, we’ll all be exposed to what are called ‘tiny t’ traumas – the small (but not insignificant) daily traumas we experience as we go about our lives.
“Tiny t traumas are those daily psychological and emotional scrapes and strains that you probably wouldn’t pay too much attention to on the odd occasion but that build up over time,” says Dr Meg Arroll, a chartered psychologist and author of the new book Tiny Traumas: When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong, But Nothing Feels Quite Right.
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While these kinds of traumas may not have much impact on their own, it’s when they add up that they can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. For example, they’re often the reason why some people find themselves feeling ‘a bit off’ – while it might feel like there’s no reason to feel unhappy, anxious or overwhelmed, these background traumas can take their toll.
“What I noticed was that I would have so many clients come to me feeling ashamed or embarrassed about being there because things weren’t ‘that bad’,” Dr Arroll continues. “I knew from when I was an academic that those smaller traumas have been shown, in some cases, to be even more influential to someone’s psychological and physical health than the big T traumas.
“So while, if we were to think about trauma and mental health on a spectrum, big T traumas would be on one end and tiny t traumas would be on the other, it’s when they build up that they become harmful. And we need to acknowledge that.”
What are ‘tiny t’ traumas?
According to Dr Arroll, tiny t traumas can stem from all areas of your life – whether that be societal, social or cultural. For example, being expected to look, speak or act a certain way to fit in can act as a tiny t trauma, because the expectations can wear you down over time.
“If these things happened once or twice in our lifetimes, then it wouldn’t be such a big deal,” Dr Arroll says. “But when we get these messages every day – from social media, for example – there’s this underlying influence telling you that you’re not good enough and there’s something wrong with you.”
Other examples of common tiny t traumas Dr Arroll points to include being made to feel like the odd one out, microaggressions – especially in the workplace – and being undermined or made to feel ‘less than’ by a friend or acquaintance. Dealing with instability – especially financial – can also be a source of tiny t trauma.
How do ‘tiny t’ traumas impact mental health?
While tiny t traumas may not often result in the kind of mental health conditions you’d see a GP or psychiatrist about, they can still leave you feeling less than OK.
“The sort of issues people struggling with tiny t trauma commonly present with include things like high-functioning anxiety, low-grade depression, emotional blunting, sleep disturbance and maladaptive perfectionism,” Dr Arroll explains.
“The difficulty with these kinds of problems is that doctors don’t often have the time or resources to really help you figure these issues out, so people who have engaged in help-seeking behaviour end up feeling like there aren’t any answers.”
How to deal with your ‘tiny t’ traumas
Knowing that tiny t traumas exist is one thing, but how can you put that knowledge into action? According to Dr Arroll, the key lies in something called the AAA technique, which stands for awareness, acceptance and action.
The first step, awareness, is crucial in helping ourselves to understand why we might be feeling a certain way, she explains. “Awareness is important because it allows us to connect the dots and make sense of our experience. If we can’t find a way to do that, we tend to just blame ourselves – and then those traumas cascade into a load more problems.”
The next step, acceptance, is fairly self-explanatory. It’s all well and good wanting to deal with what’s happened in the past, but unless you take the time to accept what has happened – and the fact that it’s affected you – then you won’t be able to move forward.
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Last, but by no means least, comes action. “While awareness and acceptance are both very powerful things, I’ve found that they’re not quite enough,” Dr Arroll says. “We need to actually take positive action to take care of our mental health – to work it out on a daily basis like we do our physical health.”
Some examples of this could include activities that are good for wellbeing, such as exercise or talking with friends, or targeted techniques to help you work through and deal with your tiny t traumas, such as journaling or other evidence-based techniques. Therapy is also an example of positive action – CBT and ACT therapies are a good place to start.
Is it possible to protect yourself from ‘tiny t’ traumas?
While the idea of being exposed to constant tiny traumas may seem scary, it’s really important – and trying to protect yourself from these things can be counterintuitive.
To understand this, Dr Arroll recommends thinking about your emotional and mental health as having its own immune system: while we can take steps to boost our immune system, trying to avoid all bugs is impossible.
Being exposed to bugs can also strengthen our immune systems – and in the same way, experiencing these tiny t traumas can make us more resilient to big emotional challenges in the long run.
“If we think about these smaller challenges as building our emotional immune system, we can take that experience as a chance to build coping skills and build a more sustainable system over time,” she says. “The important thing is we’re not just burying these feelings – we’re talking about them and thinking what we can take from our experience.”
Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and services.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.
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