They often seem insignificant and go unnoticed, but can reap havoc on our lives. They are the traumatic events of which we are unaware. I call them the small traumas, but please understand they are not called small because they are insignificant. They are called small because they are often not detected and create symptoms that can occur months or years after the fact.
These small traumas are like a virus that we cannot see, feel, hear or taste. It gets into our bodies and begins its work without any detection. It is only until we are coughing, sneezing or having body aches that we start to notice that something is wrong. The thing with a virus is that we usually do not know where we picked it up. All we know is that we feel miserable. This is often the point at which we go to the doctor.
This is very much like some of the clients who come to see me in therapy. They don’t always know what happened to make them feel anxious, depressed or any other number of symptoms they might be having. They just know that they aren’t feeling well and want to fix the symptoms and get back to feeling good again.
So what causes these small traumas?
The answer is: life in general. None of us get through life without experiencing some degree of trauma. We will have issues with our peers and siblings. Even if you have the most loving parents, they will at some point make mistakes, as they are human. You will experience rejection in one form or another. For some of these traumas, the brain will be able to work through the information and file it away correctly. Sometimes, though, the event will make more of an impact than you may be aware, and the brain will not know how to sort through it. This is more likely to happen when other, similar events occur, reinforcing a negative belief you may have about yourself or the world.
What are the signs I may have unresolved, small traumas?
Pay attention to your thoughts. Do you notice thoughts coming up about yourself or others that are critical or that create feelings related to anxiety or depression? Do you notice that specific situations bring up disturbance and bring up memories of an earlier time? If so, you may have small traumas that are not yet resolved.
What can I do about it?
There are steps you can take once you have determined that you may have small traumas that are not yet resolved.
1. Become more aware of your thought patterns and beliefs about yourself and the world.
Just having an awareness and paying attention to your thoughts and beliefs can start the ball rolling in really looking at and determining whether those thoughts and beliefs are serving you in your life.
Any degree of trauma will affect how you look at the world and yourself. Identifying and addressing these beliefs is a big part of any type of trauma work.
2. When you find beliefs that are no longer serving you, start to challenge them.
Sometimes irrational beliefs help people at some point get through difficult times. For example, having the belief that you are not good enough to associate with successful people may have protected you from being rejected as it has prevented you from putting yourself in a situation in which you might have been vulnerable to rejection.
Once it is determined that these beliefs are getting in the way of progressing to where you want to go in life, it is time to start challenging them. When you notice them coming up, pay attention to them, don’t criticize yourself for having them, and then try to come up with evidence that does not support the belief. Real life examples that contradict the belief you want to change can be very helpful. If you find you are having trouble finding evidence to challenge the belief, ask a loved one to point out the evidence they see, and then remember that feedback the next time the belief comes up.
3. Face your fears: Purposely acting against the negative beliefs about yourself and the world.
There is no sugar-coating this: It is not an easy or comfortable thing to do. It is actually downright scary sometimes to purposely act against beliefs we have held onto for much of our lives. But doing so will start to teach the brain that there is a new way of thinking and acting.
Once you have gone through steps one and two, think of healthy, productive ways in which you can engage in behavior that contradicts the negative belief. Drawing from the previous example, if the negative belief is “I can’t be accepted by successful people because I am not good enough,” purposely seek those people out and start a conversation. This doesn’t have to be a formal thing. It can be as simple as putting yourself in an environment which successful people frequent and make small talk. Start simple, by asking the time or something else that is relatively benign and work up from there. Continue to put yourself in that environment and act like you belong there, even if you don’t believe it.
4. Have patience with yourself and the process.
Changing beliefs that have long been held by the brain take time to change. We live in a society that is very much desirous of instant gratification, but some things just can’t be rushed. It takes time for the brain to learn something. When it does, it creates neural pathways where our beliefs and thoughts exist. Working on these steps will help you to create new, more adaptive neural pathways that will hold new beliefs that will help you to thrive in your life. It can be discouraging at times when it is not happening as fast as we would like, but stick with it! Giving up to early usually results in weakening of the healthy belief you are trying to integrate into your thinking and strengthening of the negative belief that already exists.
5. Start a conversation.
The power of speech is incredible. Our brains can get messy and noisy when we don’t let our thoughts and feelings have a voice. Talking to a trusted loved one can help to give you new insight into your thinking and behavior. It is also a great way to hear yourself think out loud. Talking slows the brain down. We think faster than we speak. In order to speak, we have to formulate our thoughts, which helps us to organize them in a way that may be more palatable and less overwhelming.
Overcoming small traumas sometimes requires professional assistance, especially if you notice that the above steps are not working for you. Seeking and participating in professional help does not have to be a lengthy process where you end up in therapy for years. These issues can sometimes be resolved, or resolved to the point that they are workable on your own by attending just a few sessions with a professional who is experienced in treating trauma and related negative beliefs.