Emotional abuse: a small-t trauma
Not all traumas are the same. There are the big obvious traumas such as, experiencing an earthquake, surviving a car accident, or being robbed at gunpoint. However, there are emotional events in our lives that are also traumatic. Emotional abuse is often referred to as “small-t trauma”.
Contrary to how they sound, small-t traumas are not small to the person who experiences them.
Emotional abuse includes:
- Consistently being left out of group activities
- Being called hurtful names
- Always being picked last on the playground
- Being gossiped about at work
These traumas change the way we see the world, and never for the better. Our world becomes more frightening, people seem unpredictable, and we do not feel safe.
The effects of emotional abuse build up over our lifetimes with:
- Increased substance use,
- Poor sleep quality,
- Difficulty making or keeping friendships,
- Working for less pay,
- Higher rates of unemployment,
- Taking less educational or employment risks
How can therapy help?
When working with those who have emotional abuse in their past it is important to begin with strengthening the coping skills the individual already has:
- Breathing skills
- Visual skills
- Music and sound
While often over-looked, it is important to practice mindful breathing skills. There are a variety of breathing techniques that can be useful depending upon what experience will be the most useful. For example, “belly breathing” fully expands just the belly area while “complete breathing” also includes the rib cage area. There are also two variations with how to exhale: either a slow release which increases tranquility, or a quick release which helps with experiencing how good surrendering can feel.
Guided imagery is useful for providing a safe and calming place to go to when needed for stress management. Research shows that our brains cannot tell the difference between us actually being someplace safe and calm versus us imagining that we are someplace safe and calm. The same brain chemicals are released in both scenarios.
Music has the ability to make us feel happy, powerful, calm, sad, or any other emotion! Start by creating different playlists for different moods. We could have a playlist for traffic, one for visiting family, and one for trying to get to sleep. Aside from music, there are also white noise apps, nature sounds, and binaural beats which many people find helpful.
Coping skills are important to have in place before trauma processing begins so that clients can calm themselves if they become overwhelmed. Processing just means making sense of a situation from our past.
Types of therapies useful for traumatic experiences include:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
- Acceptance and commitment therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Narrative therapy
If a child had a traumatic event such as being picked last every time on the playground and received hurtful negative information at the same time such as being called stupid or useless by the other kids then that is the filter through which the child sees their world.
A goal of therapy is then to change a hurtful belief of “I’m not smart enough” or “I am not worth anything” to a more adaptive belief of “I am smart enough” or “I am worth something”.
As people start to move toward a more balanced view of themselves, big changes in their lives are bound to happen. As they stop beating themselves up, they are less likely to allow others to beat them up as well.
Giving up the strain of small-t traumas can be so unimaginably wonderful that we sometimes wonder how or why we ever carried them with us for so long. These changes require adjustments to the way we live our lives.
This is where we learn to become assertive and stand up for ourselves. We get to learn and practice healthy boundaries including who we spend time with and how much time we spend with them. We also get to decide what types of people we would like to have in our lives and how to go about making and keeping positive friendships.
If you find yourself experiencing unwanted effects from emotional abuse, remember that there is hope and recovery is possible.