Trauma is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the mental health space. And I really want to create some clarity surrounding trauma and what it actually is, what it can look like, and also share some helpful tips on how to navigate healing from trauma. There are all different types of trauma. And little t trauma is often something that you don’t hear much about. So I invited Amy Tran on A Healthy Push podcast to talk about little t trauma to help bring some awareness to a topic that is lacking some much needed attention.
Amy Tran has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and she is currently training to become a psychologist, and a lot of Amy’s focus is on working with children and adolescents. Amy and I connected on Instagram a while back and I have been so inspired by her work and what she shares. She shares lots of helpful tips, tools, and practices on many different mental health topics, and what I love about Amy is that she often gets really real and really honest about her own mental health. And in this conversation, we dive into Amy’s personal experience with trauma, and she also shares lots of helpful information and tools relating to healing from trauma.
WHAT IS LITTLE T TRAUMA?
Let’s first talk about the differences between big t trauma and little t trauma. Amy explains that when we think about big t trauma, we think about a significant life threatening event that puts somebody at risk for injury. For example, things like natural disasters, an assault, or a car accident. They are abrupt and significant events. And a person that experiences a big t trauma, especially speaking to repeated big traumas, sometimes develop symptoms of PTSD.
Little t trauma is different in the sense that it’s not necessarily life threatening, but it causes a lot of harm to the self. It can look like enduring emotional abuse, bullying, financial struggles, or living in a system of oppression and systematic racism. Little t trauma, although called “little,” can have a more devastating effect than big t trauma because it’s something that is recurring and so it adds up, and it can often be subtle and therefore missed which can lead to a lack of support and treatment.
Because of the clinical work and research that Amy has done in relation to the parent/child dynamic, when it comes to little t trauma she often thinks of the fact that all humans want to feel safe, seen, soothed, and to feel secure. And when this doesn’t happen, it can lead to insecurities and beliefs of being unlovable, unworthy, and helpless. And that’s when little t trauma can really impact someone; it’s these early experiences with our families and our parents that can contribute to these beliefs.
Amy highlights something really important. She says, “If it was traumatic to you, then it’s trauma.”
AMY’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH LITTLE T TRAUMA
Amy shares that both of her parents are from Vietnam. One of her parents immigrated to the U.S. and one was a refugee that came to the U.S. And both endured significant stressors, to which Amy would call traumatic. Her parents unfortunately didn’t have the resources to process what had happened. Amy shares that for them, “it’s not a thing to go to therapy,” and they didn’t have social support to even discuss what had happened.
And when you think about a secure parent/child relationship, we think about a child feeling safe and secure. This also means feeling soothed when in distress. And when these pieces are missing, it can have a big impact on how a child develops into adulthood. Amy shares that growing up, she knew deep down that her father loved her but he was very cold and didn’t display or talk about emotions. And because of this, Amy lacked a feeling of being seen, and she also learned to shut down and avoid displaying emotions.
On the other hand, her mom was a bit warmer but very inconsistent with displaying emotions. And when parents are inconsistent, it can lead to feelings of anxiety because your needs are being met sometimes, but not always. It’s common to get clingy and seek reassurance because you never know if your needs are going to be met.
Through therapy and her own journey, Amy began to identify how her childhood experiences had shaped some of her behaviors as an adult. She identified that many of her experiences had impacted her adult relationships. She had a hard time opening up to people, and trusting people, and she was avoidant, and clingy. She also identified that she lacked emotional regulation skills, and she often invalidated herself and her own feelings. Amy recognized that she had truly modeled how her parents handled their emotions.
Amy also shares that her parents divorced when she was in high school, and it was pretty hard because there was a lot of conflict in her home. She says that she didn’t learn what a healthy love looked like so she had to navigate the romantic world without having a healthy model of it.
REGULATING YOUR EMOTIONS
Amy shares that she thinks that regulating emotions first starts with being comfortable and feeling safe in your body, because emotions can cause lots of physiological responses. For example, experiencing anxiety can lead to your heart racing or experiencing tightness in your body. And if these things feel unsafe because you don’t know how to deal with it, you’re likely going to dissociate or cope in unhealthy ways.
So it’s first about learning how to soothe your own body, whether it’s by deep breaths, or movement, etc. The next step is being able to identify and label your emotion. What is the emotion? What does it mean? And the next is to be able to find the tool to be able to regulate or problem solve.
Amy has been seeing in her clinical work that when children and adolescents lack emotional regulation skills, emotional awareness, and have dysregulated nervous systems, their parents weren’t in a position where they were able to help their children learn the tools to help them. And it’s unfortunately not something that children are taught in the public school systems.
PERSONAL WAYS IN WHICH AMY STRUGGLED
- The trauma Amy experienced as a child affected her intimate relationships. She often found herself getting into relationships with emotionally unavailable people because it’s what she was familiar with. The brain likes familiarity, and so she often found herself in relationships that caused lots of pain.
- She associated external accomplishments with her self-worth. Amy struggled deeply with perfectionism, especially while in graduate school. She found that she was constantly chasing accomplishments in order to get recognition and praise, which never came. And perfectionism also produced a lot of anxiety because she had a constant pressure on herself to perform and do well.
- Amy also used unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking alcohol, in an effort to run and escape from and soothe her emotions.
- She struggled with hypervigilance and found herself constantly looking for cues to show her that she was safe.
- Amy recognized that she had developed an anxious-attachment style. She was clingy in relationships and she often found herself seeking reassurance.
THINGS THAT HAVE HELPED AMY ON HER HEALING JOURNEY
01. Gaining awareness. Amy says, “Gaining awareness is the first step towards healing because you can’t address what you don’t understand.” The education she’s pursuing in psychology has definitely helped her to learn more and gain an awareness that she didn’t have prior. And awareness and self-awareness leads to healing.
02. She read lots of books and listened to podcasts. Because gaining knowledge and insight supports the healing process.
03. Therapy and self-reflection! Amy had a friend in her program at school who was struggling with similar things who was an inspiration to her. Her friend owned the truths of… Therapists don’t have to be perfect. Therapists are human too. Therapists struggle with their own difficulties. And her friend sought out therapy, which then helped Amy to begin to break stigmas that Amy was holding onto, and she began going to therapy herself and doing some important self-reflection work.
04. She explored holistic approaches to healing and practicing things like meditation, yoga, journaling, self-affirmations, and allowing herself to feel her emotions.
05. Amy is practicing being more aware. She is practicing not reaching for unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol, when she’s stressed or anxious.
06. She got a dog which really helped to show her what love is.
07. Amy shares that she began having conversations with her parents about her childhood. She began getting curious and asking her parents questions. Questions like… Can you tell me more about my childhood? What were you like? Did you ever hug me when I was younger? What was going on when I was younger? Did you guys fight a lot? What were your intentions? And some of these conversations were full of emotions, but it’s been healing for her and her family. And some of these conversations led into her parents talking about their experiences which is so incredibly beautiful!
HOW TO CONNECT WITH AMY:
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On Instagram: @doodledwellness