“Big T” or “little t,” trauma is defined by its impact on our beliefs and behaviors. So what about the “tiny t” events and patterns we experience, that create lasting emotional effects nonetheless? These events (and our unintentional responses to them) can be referred to as microtrauma.
Often, human beings learn what to expect based on patterns. If we get sick every time we eat, say, tomatoes, we learn that tomatoes will probably make us sick. If they don’t, we don’t expect that we’ll get sick from eating tomatoes.
We learn how to act accordingly based on these patterns.
So, using the tomato example, if you are a person who gets sick after eating tomatoes, you might avoid eating tomatoes most of the time. Even if they don’t actually make you sick, the nervousness surrounding former situations where you have felt sick after eating them makes you feel ill now.
Though this is an unemotional example that’s unlikely to impact your life, the same is true for topics that can have a far more severe impact.
Microtrauma is the phenomenon in which small negative events add up and create programmed assumptions in our brains. These lead to automatic (and often unwanted) emotional responses.
What is microtrauma?
Microtrauma refers to the cumulative effect of many smaller traumatic occurrences.
A physical example would be, say, bumping the same spot on your leg multiple times in a row. An emotional example of microtrauma is getting told that you’re overreacting every time you speak up about your feelings, leading you to hold them inside or see yourself as weak. Even if not stereotypically traumatic, these small occurrences add up. The microtrauma we experience from day to day can have a lasting effect.
Examples of microtrauma
Here are some examples of microtrauma:
If we make friends with other kids easily, we learn that we don’t have trouble making friends. On the other hand, if we try to make friends and the other kids turn us down, we learn that people “don’t like us” and might struggle to make friends, feel confident in front of others, and branch out later on as adults.
Your parents picked you up on time after school every day, so you learned to trust others’ promises. But if they frequently forgot or showed up late, you might learn to expect that you can’t rely on other people. Then in adulthood, you might make your loved ones feel unneeded by assuming you can’t rely on them.
Your classmates poked fun at your appearance or mannerisms. You learned then that you weren’t “good enough” and carried those insecurities into adulthood.
Your parent rarely knew what to say when you expressed pain, so even though it wasn’t mean-spirited or cruel, you internalized that expressing your pain makes others freeze up. So, you assume that others would like you more if you never ask for help or reassurance.
If multiple people turn you down in a row (which is totally respectable and isn’t their fault, but can hurt nonetheless), you might start to feel that romantic relationships won’t work out or fear that everyone will leave. Now, you stop relationships that could work out before they start.
You have a few jobs in a row where you’re treated poorly or get fired. Now, you rush to quit each job you get as soon as it starts.
It can be tough to address microtrauma no matter who you are–especially if you’ve been made to feel invalidated about other traumas, big or small.
If you’re someone who has experienced major trauma, sometimes called “big T trauma” in life, you might not recognize microtrauma and the impact it has had. Sometimes, smaller pieces of trauma can pair with more obvious, direct sources of trauma, too. In those cases, you might address the “big” stuff, all while wondering where exactly your other unbreakable patterns come from.
For example, if you endure a major traumatic event, such as a severe physical illness, and your financial privilege changes dramatically because of it, the loss of financial privilege might also be a trauma. But because we’re told “money can’t buy happiness” in society, you might not recognize this traumatic transition. You would then go on to address the trauma of your illness, while neglecting the trauma of your change in circumstances.
Another possibility? If you haven’t experienced a more “stereotypical” source of trauma, you might invalidate yourself and the “little t trauma” or microtrauma you’ve encountered, telling yourself that it “could be worse,” so you should “get over it.” This self-invalidation (programmed into us) can cause the compounded effects of microtrauma to run wild.
Start with acceptance
The process begins, often, with validation and acknowledgment. It can help to look at microtraumas you’ve experienced from a lens of radical acceptance. Strip patterns down to what they are, without trying to judge if they’re “big” enough to be valid.
Something happened, and a self-protective pattern developed. Now that you know the pattern is there, you can change it.
Expose yourself to change
Many people struggle with change, and it can certainly be scary. Let’s say that you’re someone who has struggled to make friends in the past. You want to make friends, but that positive affiliation isn’t there yet. It’s nerve-wracking to put yourself out there. The thought of meeting up with new people gives you butterflies in your stomach. You have a tendency to isolate yourself, but you don’t want to do that anymore. You want to try until you find the right people.
The first step is to put yourself out there. Take a class, join a club, volunteer, or meet people in another way. Ask someone to get coffee, play a game, or do something else with you if they seem like someone you might want to befriend. Again, the nerves might be high, but the possibility of a positive outcome is there, too. It can help to be mindful of old patterns and use affirmations to focus on the now.
That’s where the next step comes in. You’re about to meet up with that new possible friend, and the old thought, “No one likes me, I’m not cool enough for them” comes in. You’re tempted to cancel, not out of genuine self-care, but out of nervousness or even self-sabotage. That’s where you might say to yourself, “I have no evidence to support that that’ll be the outcome with this particular person yet” or another affirmation that you find helpful.
Yes, there will likely be discomfort; that comes with change. But, it’s the start to forming new patterns. It might even take some time for the positive outcome (in this case, meeting the right friends) to come. It’s brave, and it’s a big deal.
That’s what healing is: Breaking old patterns that no longer serve you, sometimes messily and imperfectly.
Many people feel like they’re on their own when it comes to patterns of microtrauma, because they feel their problems aren’t “big” enough. But if you look in the right place, you don’t have to be on your own. You might find people who are going through the same things–striving to manage social anxiety, increasing confidence, setting boundaries, putting yourself out there, and so on. Or, you might try an anonymous peer support network like Supportiv.
No matter what happens, know that you deserve to break old patterns and build new ones. If you experience invalidation along the way, know that you’re on the right path; you’re willing to get into the smaller, deep-rooted stuff if that’s what it takes to heal. That’s something to take pride in.