Ask a Counselor: how do we recognize and cope with trauma?

Recently, I was Skyping with a client overseas who wanted to talk with me about symptoms of burnout and spiritual dryness.

As she told me about a particular experience, I said, “That was really traumatic for you.”

Naming that experience as traumatic was an “aha” moment for her in understanding the current symptoms, and how to treat them.

This is a fairly typical experience for me in counseling.  I find that it’s often difficult for individuals to recognize how traumatic events have impacted them and their family members personally.

Once we recognize the trauma, and know what we’re dealing with, then we have a way forward.

When we fail to recognize the reality of trauma, we can end up exacerbating the situation rather than working to heal it.

As I said to my client just the other day, “I think you’ve been running on a broken leg for a couple of years now.”  And she agreed that was an accurate description of what she had been experiencing.

We recognize trauma and treat it not because we want to wallow and whine, but because we want to keep walking and running in good health for years to come.


“Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.”  The American Psychological Association

When we think about trauma, we’re usually thinking about major catastrophic events:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual assault
  • death of a family member
  • witnessing an act of violence
  • being caught in a natural disaster
  • living in a war zone

In the counseling world, we call these kinds of events “Big-T trauma.”  Everyone will usually recognize Big-T trauma, and often there are structures in place to help victims recover.

However, there’s another category of trauma that can be equally difficult to deal with over time.  Less recognized, but perhaps more common, we call these kinds of events “Little-t trauma.” 

Little-t trauma can include:

  • ongoing distressing situations such as bullying or spiritual abuse
  • emotional neglect or abandonment
  • living with an alcoholic or workaholic parent
  • caring for a family member with severe mental or physical illness
  • living in a marriage threatened by pornography
  • multiple moves/transitions/losses
  • any situation that leaves a person feeling frightened and helpless, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm

The perception that we are helpless in the face of frightening events is one of the foundational pieces of psychological trauma. 

This helps us understand why some members of a family may be minimally impacted by an event, while others are deeply traumatized.

  • Parents may have a great deal of choice and efficacy in a situation, while children have almost none.
  • A husband may be able to work for solutions in a difficult situation, while a wife feels helpless to protect herself and her children.
  • An adult may experience a situation as exciting, while a child may experience it as terrifying.

Accepting the personal perception and experience of each individual is vital in helping to heal trauma. 

If only one story is allowed—the story of the can-do parent, the workaholic husband—then trauma sufferers will continue to suffer as their experience goes invalidated and untreated.

We can deny the reality of trauma, deny the reality of its impact, but eventually the truth will show up in common symptoms.

When we lived in a large missionary community overseas, I could tell who was burning out based on their posts to online community bulletin boards.   The people who were angry at others for not doing enough, upset with others for not doing it right–well, often those folks often ended up being treated for burnout.  They were over their limits but unable to see it until it was too late.

Here are some signs to watch for in yourself and family members.

Physical Signs of Trauma:

  • Unexplained physical sensations, including pain
  • Sleep and eating disturbances
  • Low energy
  • Hypervigilance, tendency to startle easily

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Depression and fear
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Numbness, irritability, anger
  • Feeling out of control
  • Avoidance

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Distraction
  • Decrease in concentration
  • Memory lapse
  • Difficulty with decisions
  • Feeling far from God; spiritual dryness

Behavioral Signs & Effects:

  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Impulsive, self-destructive behaviors
  • Dissociation
  • Isolation, avoidance, social withdrawal
  • Sexual disruption
  • Feeling threatened, hostile, argumentative

Re-experiencing the trauma:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Sudden emotional and or physical flooding

While we are more likely to extend and accept help after Big-T trauma, we must consider the Little-t traumas that need attention as well.

  • How are we processing emotions and resting our bodies in ongoing situations?
  • How can we attend to the needs of everyone in ongoing situations?
  • When is it time to step out of an ongoing situation?
  • Who helps us evaluate ongoing situations for “too much”?
  • Are we really willing to watch for signs and symptoms, or is denial our default mode?

Treatment-wise, this is an exciting time to have a trauma diagnosis.

In the past, a prescription and talk therapy were the most common treatments.

Today, there are additional new interventions available like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and neurofeedback.  Yoga is being studied as a legitimate and amazingly helpful intervention for trauma survivors. (You can read more in The Body Keeps the Score, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.)

Trauma is not “all in our heads” and we can’t just ignore our way out of it.  

The chemical impact of trauma is stored in our bodies, and if we don’t attend to it,

we’ll pay the price in painful symptoms including burnout.

The good news is:  there’s treatment.  

But we’ve got to stop running on that broken leg and let ourselves get the help we need.

Resources for adults

Suffering and the Heart of God, Diane Langberg

YouTube presentation by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, trauma expert

OnBeing podcast with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

OnBeing podcast with James Doty

The Body Keeps the Score, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

Explore your childhood trauma score with the ACES assessment tool

Resources for parents to use with children

From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:  a checklist to guide parents in helping young children after traumatic events

A Terrible Thing Happened (picture book)

Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, Levine & Kline

The Amazing Brain, a printable pdf guide for parents

Resource for teachers and school staff

Helping Traumatized Children Learn

Sources for this article


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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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