Small Trauma: What It Is and the Importance of Resiliency and Recovery

Patient Expert

Imagine you are on a plane and think everything is going well. All of a sudden you hear an announcement from the pilot that everyone needs to go back to their seats and fasten their safety belts because the plane has to make an emergency landing. After that there is more turbulence than you know is "normal" for a flight. Your mind starts to wonder if this is "it." Eventually the plane lands safely. But not without leaving everyone from the flight incredibly shaken up.

This was my experience last month. As a professional speaker, I fly all over the country. Some months I'm traveling more than I'm home. I had to get back on another flight the day after this emergency landing. I can't avoid flying and still be successful in my career. However, since going through that experience I've started to notice that I've been more paranoid while on flights. Since flying isn't something I can avoid, I decided to reach out to my good friend, Isaiah Pickens, who just so happens to be a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health writer  for HealthCentral.

After recalling my experience for him and the feelings that are still remaining now with each flight I take, I had one question that I wanted his professional opinion on: Was this a trauma I experienced?

What is a small trauma?

We don't usually have a hard time identifying large traumatic events. We connect trauma with things like war, murder, human trafficking, losing everything in the California wildfires, and other events we see on the news. But what about our own experiences? What about the smaller things we live through that aren't necessarily newsworthy? These are the situations that make an impact on us but don't include things like death, physical injury, or sexual violence. It's things like a divorce, emotional abuse, getting fired, a close call while you're driving, or having an emergency landing on your flight. Are these events considered trauma?

According to Isaiah and other mental health professionals, the answer is "yes." The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) uses The Three E’s of trauma as their definition, which says, “Trauma is an Event or series of events that is Experienced as physically or emotionally threatening and that has lasting adverse Effects on the individual’s functioning.”

That means trauma can be different for each person. You and I can live through the same, or a very similar, situation and walk away from it with completely different emotional and mental perspectives. It impacts our life in different ways. And the majority of people will live through a traumatic experience at least once in their life.

Trauma can be different for each person. You and I can live through the same, or a very similar, situation and walk away from it with completely different emotional and mental perspectives.

We are all at least a little resilient

During my conversation with Isaiah, he shared about the role that resilience plays in helping us process and work through trauma in our lives. He defined resilience as "the ability to bounce back when you experience adverse life events." He also shared that everyone has some level of resilience based on our personal resilience assets and resources.

Resilience assets are things that are a part of who we are. It includes things like our biology, predisposition to depression, regulation of emotions, and ability to build interpersonal relationships. They are the things that come naturally to us. These assets are what we use to help us determine when we're feeling out of control. Resources, on the other hand, are the things outside of ourselves. This includes things like a support person or access to mentoring.

These assets and resources help us determine how we respond to traumatic situations or even what we consider to be traumatic. This is how two people can live through the same experience and one will have difficulty processing and moving through it and the other will take it in stride.

What resilience looked like in my experience

When my plane landed I immediately sent my therapist a message letting her know what had happened. She responded by reaching out to me ASAP so we could discuss and start processing through the events. Because of the mental health challenges I have faced from childhood, I am pretty in tune with my resilience assets and resources, although I didn't call them that in the past.

I was familiar enough with how this situation could impact me emotionally and mentally that I knew to reach out to one of my resources for support. Was I doing this because I knew it was a part of being resilient? Honestly, no. I was doing it because I knew I needed to in order to keep myself in control.

The importance of recovery

Building your level of resilience is important, but there are times when we need more than that. This is where recovery comes into play. Recovery is when a traumatic event, even a small one, damages a person. This is when a person needs more than simply identifying the trauma in order to move forward from it, they need help in learning how to recover from it.

If you have been having a hard time moving past an event in your life, it might be time to call it what it was—trauma. Remember, it doesn't have to be a huge newsworthy event that everyone knows about. It could be something small and personal that only you experienced. Identifying it as trauma can help you take the steps you need to in order to recover.

There is never shame in getting the help you need in life. I'm committed to sticking with therapy for life to help my mental wellness. This commitment is what put me in a place to have resilience when I thought my flight might be going down. If you need help, reach out to a local therapist today.