By Alexa Bailey, MSW, LMSW

TRAUMA. It’s a big scary word that gets thrown around with little context to what it means. In the mainstream media, there are countless jokes making light of trauma responses in the way we jokingly describe events as “traumatizing” or when someone feeling minor annoyance claims they’re being “triggered”. While making light of situations can be a coping skill at times, it can also be invalidating. And here’s why: sometimes (a lot of the time), we have trauma responses without having full blown PTSD.

Serious things that happen to people like war time exposure, assault, or major vehicle crashes, which can be qualified as Big T traumas. On the other side of things, we have many, many, many things that fall into the little t trauma spectrum that not only mimic PTSD symptoms, but also are difficult to validate because we don’t see them as “bad enough” for it to be trauma. Just because the things we experienced don’t appear life endangering, it doesn’t mean that our bodies and brains aren’t interpreting things in that way. To put it simply, how a situation impacts a person has much more to do with pre-existing factors like past experiences, beliefs, or perceptions than it does with the facts of a situation. This can make things messy because our system isn’t responding to the situation itself, but rather our interpretation it.

Think about it like this: if you are raised in a household where a mess in your room resulted in yelling or a physical reprimand, then a messy desk or disorganization later in life might feel overwhelming to the point of panic because your body has been conditioned to believe that mess = bad, and bad = punishment. And the funny thing about the brain, is that it will try to make sense of whatever information it is given in order to keep the internal peace and find a way through, which can look like rationalizing negative behaviors, accepting abusive communication, and sometimes even perpetuating unhealthy responses because we think that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Little t trauma can come from things like conflict with family members, moving, not receiving love or connection in the way you needed it, a break-up or loss of a friendship, or even expectations of perfection.  Noticing the signs and bringing awareness to our functioning is the first place to start, to begin validating and addressing our trauma. To help, here are some things to look for:

  • anger or irritability with mood swings and emotional outbursts
  • panic or fear, racing heart, activated nervous system in seemingly normal circumstances (like going to the store or having conversations)
  • patterns of depression and/or anxiety (it usually started somewhere!)
  • flashbacks and recurring memories or negative childhood messages
  • confusion, guilt, and difficulty making decisions
  • difficulty with sleep or eating
  • avoidance
  • perfectionism

While this list is not exhaustive, if you’re seeing these in your own life, this is a chance to evaluate what from the past is still lingering in a negative way. And there are people to help you on that journey, you don’t have to do it alone. Pushing through and “toughing it out” is just a fancy way of saying avoidance. Emotional avoidance is a dangerous pattern that we dress up and call pretty names like positive mindset or being present/not living in the past. Positivity and perseverance are admirable qualities but being positive also does not require invalidation and denial of the past in order to be effective. What we need is positivity with perspective.

Listen to your body. Listen to the messages your internal system is sending you, because it might not always be with words, and maybe you haven’t been listening for a while. So, listen and take it in. And decide today that you are worth the effort.


Alexa Bailey is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW), who works in private practice providing therapeutic services at Evolve Counseling. She has experience treating several different populations and areas, including trauma, anxiety, depression, relational challenges, and life transitions with both young adults/adolescents and adults. Alexa is a big advocate of self-care and creating whole personal wellness through positive change and healthy habits.