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What Exactly Is Trauma?

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

'Trauma' seems to be a bit of a buzzword at the minute, we hear it all the time, in the news, on social media, from celebrities to members of the royal family to everyday people using it colloquially to describe every day events. I remember telling a friend I felt traumatised that I'd broken a toenail - of course I wasn't actually traumatised, more like mildly irritated as I wanted to wear open toed sandals and the toenail was wonky and looked a bit odd, but I am prone to a bit of exaggeration so here we are with my toenail trauma and some thoughts about what it actually means to be traumatised.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines trauma as ''a deeply distressing or disturbing experience' or 'physical injury'. Both of these imply a one off dramatic event, which can certainly leave an imprint of trauma on the body and mind. This is what we usually think of when we imagine a trauma: losing a leg in a car crash, a veteran that's seen his comrade die, a sudden bereavement. More and more though we are beginning to understand how chronic and unrelenting stress causes a trauma response in the body. In the world of counselling and psychology the two types are often referred to as Big T or Little T trauma, Big T being the one off, catastrophic event, and Little T meaning the accumulation of long term stresses.

Most of us are familiar with the term 'fight or flight', which we recognise as a reaction to danger, something that could pose a threat to life. Our nervous system kicks in, giving us a burst of stress hormones that allow us to fight for our lives or run away from the danger. Our heart rate increases, our blood vessels dilate to provide more oxygen to the muscles, our breathing gets faster to deliver that oxygen. We might feel panicky, frightened, jittery and ready to run or behave aggressively to stave off an attack.

Less familiar to many, are the freeze, flop and fawn responses that may come if fight or flight doesn't work. Our brains are very clever at trying to protect ourselves from danger. Think of an animal having been caught by a predator. They might freeze - this response is there to minimise the damage caused in the hope they might still get away and recover, if escape feels impossible, they might flop, otherwise seen as 'playing dead'. This serves two purposes. Either the predator thinks their prey is dead and loses interest, or they carry on the attack but the animal's brain has very cleverly shut down the connection between mind and body, so they can detatch themselves from what's happening to them, as well as relaxing the body to minimise pain. The fawn response sees people trying to reason with their attacker, allowing them to do things to them so they won't do something even worse. It's a protective mechanism that allows the person to feel they have a little control, while still being subjected to harm, and often shows up later in people pleasing behaviour.

A trauma response can happen to anyone, from almost any event. It's our perception of the event that's important. If you're walking in a forest and see a snake in your path, fight or flight will kick in and your body will ready itself for action. It's only as you get closer and realise it's just a stick that your body will resolve, your nervous system calms down and you go back to 'normal'. Except sometimes, when you've experienced something really traumatic, it doesn't settle back down to where it was before and you continue to feel on edge, nervous and jumpy. Every time you see a stick you think it's a snake all over again and your system goes into overdrive. Your breathing gets quicker and you hyperventilate, get pins and needles in your hands and feet, your heart feels like it's going to explode and you feel faint. You might even logically realise it's a stick and feel confused and silly at this 'overreaction'.

When you are subjected to chronic stress, for example, being bullied or abused, going through a protracted relationship breakdown, homelessness (or the threat of it), poverty, racism or misogyny, or myriad other things that might keep your body ready to protect you at all times, you never really completely come out of that stress response. This is how Little T Trauma builds up in the body and can eventually lead us to break. Stress hormones wreak havoc on our immune systems if they're allowed to build up. People with chronic stress are more prone to infection, heart problems, auto immune disorders and lots more. (I recommend reading 'The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk if you want to know more).

Trauma does not always lead to traumatisation. We can all have a horrible experience and feel it as trauma but if we are able to process it physically and mentally, by following through the trauma response to its conclusion (using relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises are useful for this, as is exercise and movement), use our support networks to process it verbally and feel connected back to others, we may not feel traumatised by that event. It's simply a horrible thing that happened that we hold in our memory. But if we can't release the trauma because of how we've been brought up ('don't cry, you're not a baby', 'stop making a fuss, you're being silly, it's not that bad' - familiar to anyone?) Or because showing we were hurting was just as dangerous as the abuse or event (freeze, flop, fawn) or because the trauma is ongoing, we may end up traumatised - stuck in a cycle of our nervous system being overeager to respond even when there's no danger, or respond disproportionately to what's actually happening in reality.

The important thing to remember is that whatever your response to Big or Little Trauma - your body is working it's hardest to keep you safe. It's an automatic response that you had no control over in the moment. But you can regain control. You can retrain your body and mind to react differently and feel better. It takes time, compassion towards yourself, and support. You don't have to live with a traumatised body and mind. There are lots of tools that can help: breathing exercises, yoga, mindfulness, exercising, spending time in nature, and polyvagal exercises (have a look on YouTube for ideas). Counselling can also be a really important part of this journey too, particularly if you're not sure where to start. It gives you a safe space to explore all the feelings that come with trauma, fear, shame, guilt, low self esteem, poor self-care to name a few. Sometimes we may not even understand where the feelings come from until we start to talk, particularly with Little T Trauma which we feel we should have been able to cope with.

It can feel really overwhelming. But every journey starts with one step. So if you would like support please do reach out. Whether it's a life changing event, a long term situation, or just a toenail trauma, things can always, always get better.

Sam x

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