The root causes that bring so many patients to see me are not specific to one population, group, or type of person. Rather, they are universal issues that are a part of the human condition.
Every morning, I take time to reflect on the themes that seem to be coming up most among the patients I see. I spend time reading and trying to learn more about the etiology of the issues and therapeutic modalities to aid in relieving such issues. I’ll preface this article by saying that there is no single modality that works in solving these complex and painful issues.
Much of what I write about, if you follow me on Instagram, are psychoeducational insights and tools addressing the complexities of attachment, trauma, and the schemas we develop in childhood that shape so much of how we view our world as adults. I write about these things because they impact just about everyone, and they are the often origin of what I observe when I work with individuals with depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Big T Trauma VS. Little T Trauma
In the world of mental health we have what we call “Big T Trauma” and “Little t trauma”. Big T Trauma refers to the things that come to mind when we think about life threatening events: sexual abuse, domestic violence, experiencing a significant accident or illness, losing a loved one, physical abuse, etc.
We often reflect on our lives and think, “I don’t know why I’m so anxious, I’ve never had anything really bad happen to me.”
Little t trauma refers to things we often shrug off and deem as “normal”. These are things like growing up in a household where yelling and arguing were the norm, being bullied, emotionally vacant parents, growing up as a “latch-key kid”, etc. These are events that we may not deem as life threatening, but have significantly impacted our felt sense of safety and attachment.
Our society has a way of placing traumas into a hierarchy, and dismissing anything less than life threatening as null.
The reality is, trauma occurs anytime our brains experience events that overwhelm our ability to cope. This is why frequent yelling in the home can be traumatic for children, who are developmentally egocentric. As children, we are not equipped to rationalize and think, “This has more to do with dad having a bad day than it does with something being wrong with me.” What we process is, “There must be something wrong with me.” Children internalize the external from a perspective that it was caused by them. They begin to learn ways to manage the emotions of their caregivers to prevent the yelling, or they begin to live in a heightened state of anxiety, just waiting for the explosion.
Our early attachments in life guide the development of our schemas, or how we view the world and others in it (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). As children, fear increases our need for a close attachment to our caregivers. The more secure we are, the more we explore our worlds. Physical and emotional security are crucial for the development of self-worth in children.
Children with secure attachment feel safe and know they belong. Without this attachment early in life, we are often left in a state of insecurity and fear.
The amazing news is that even if we didn’t not have a secure base or attachment figure in childhood, we can develop a felt sense of security in adulthood. It first begins with belonging to ourselves and developing a sense of safety within our bodies. Therapy can be a great place to start to explore and begin repairing the relationships we have with ourselves.
For many survivors of trauma, a sense of belongingness has been ruptured. Our brains begin to replay the past and build up walls to insulate us from pain, in turn taking us out of the present moment and isolating us from others.
Fostering a sense of belonging begins to heal attachment wounds and trauma. Psychotherapist Deirdre Fay recommends creating a Belongingness Box. The Box can include any items that help connect you to others: maybe a concert ticket stub to remind you of singing with others while your favorite song played, a picture of your dog or your child, a rock from a hike where you felt connected to the earth...
What else can we do? Get curious.
The next time you feel an overwhelming emotion, ask yourself if it has to do with the present situation OR if it’s really about the past. Offer yourself compassion, and remind yourself, “I am (name), I am (age) years old. I am (something you’re proud of). I am okay.”
Healing our limbic systems (the emotional center of the brain) requires building awareness.
It means we start noticing and getting curious about the sensations we experience, identifying triggers, and practicing self-soothing by staying in our bodies with use of breathing, tapping, yoga, or paying close attention to our five senses.
Self-awareness is scary at first, and like anything, takes practice. Knowing that others suffer, that you are not alone in your pain or your experience can offer a soft cushion for compassion. Next time you are experiencing a painful emotion, try placing one hand on your heart and saying aloud, "I'm having a hard time. It's going to be okay. I'm not alone."
Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991), An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 331-341.