The Small “t” Traumas

EMDR Therapy, a psychotherapy originally known for its effectiveness for processing trauma, has been growing rapidly in popularity in recent years, as well as gaining a growing and promising research base for a wider range of client difficulties. This post is about how EDMR therapy can be used to work through difficulties which may not meet the criteria for trauma or may appear smaller or less severe to you.

When people hear the word trauma, they often think of “Big ‘T’ Traumas” or what I would call “traumas of commission” (things that happened which shouldn’t have).” I’m not talking about that here, I’m not even talking of attachment or neglect trauma or what I would call “traumas of omission” (things which didn’t happen which should have- I’ll save these for another post). I will talk here of what are called small “t’ traumas”. These are essentially past experiences which are not seen as traumatic as they do not hold the weight of the word “trauma” and are often experiences most people have, however, still lead us with difficulties today. Such as: anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, relationship difficulties, fears difficulties connecting and many more.

I believe we should either find a new word for these traumas or find a way to widen our definition of trauma without taking out the power and significance. Either way, these are unprocessed memories which we could not manage well enough for full integration at the time, do not meet the category of severe trauma, but still create difficulties for us today. These small t traumas are often found to be having a big impact. This is true even if you can’t think of a major or difficult situation which has led to the issue, even if you are one of the people who regularly says me: “my life has been pretty good, stable upbringing in a good home, no traumas, good job, kids, partner, all is great… I really can’t think of any reason why I am like this”…… a common story.

The reality is, in most cases, there are denial or other protective defences (usually unconscious) or there is an accumulation of unprocessed situations, that were difficult at the time, which remain unprocessed to some degree and do not constitute as a big T Trauma, and in many cases are not remembered until therapy.

Let me give you a personal example of how small situations which, everyone experiences or at least experiences similar at some point growing up. I had to have EMDR practiced on me as a part of a training course, so I decided to work on an anxiety and low self-esteem I have which comes up for me in one specific situation- speaking in front of large groups- which is at odds with the rest of me as person. Most people who know me would say that I’m the complete opposite and it would confuse them because it is very situation specific and they don’t see it in me at all. So, I then had to do a “float back”, an EMDR technique to identify past memories. This entailed purposefully feeling the anxiety by imagining a still framed image representing the anxiety (a large crowd of people looking at me), then feeling the negative cognition/felt belief (which was some form of insecurity), feeling the emotions of anxiety, feeling the body sensations which accompanied that and really embodying that fear I had when thinking about speaking publicly. Then I dropped the image and re-felt the sensations, fear and the negative felt belief and then scanned my history for time where I may have felt the same before.

Due to the nature of state-specific memory and how unprocessed memories are stored in their original form without linking to adaptive material, I then had a range of unprocessed memories come into my mind. One specific memory came up as the earliest, or what in EMDR therapy we would call “the touchstone”, the experienced that paved the way: in Junior school, I messed up in a performance on stage when playing on the keyboard- a memory that had been lost to me for over 2 decades. It was really weird for this to come up as I was not expecting it at all. As you can see it’s not a huge memory, it’s not considered a big T trauma, but as I felt overwhelmed at the time, I did not process it properly, so it then paved the way for a situation-based anxiety which got strengthened by even smaller experiences since then (and got strengthened through avoidance). The way forward then, through the EMDR model, is to process the past experiences starting from the touchstone memory, and processing all experiences identified, linking them up to adaptive memory networks. If there are too many experiences, choosing representative examples can work, or processing the first, the worst, and the last time something happened. We then process the current triggers in life today if they haven’t naturally resolved (so for my example above would be processing imagery of me giving a speech or similar), and then set a future template if needed.

So, the point I want to get across here. Is that everyday, normal occurrences, or slightly less common but experiences which “everybody has at some point” can be still be (and often are) left unprocessed, causing symptoms in the present, if there was an element of overwhelm They do not have to be big T traumas to benefit from EMDR processing. The current issues do not need to be major flash backs or dissociation. Issues could be self-esteem, anxiety, depression, sexual issues, bereavement (which of course can be highly traumatic), and issues in work performance to name a few.

If you feel that EMDR therapy may be of use for you, do get in touch. Sessions are available online and face to face (Mental Health has been exempt from lockdowns so far).