How to Tell if it was Trauma or a Bad Life Experience

How to Tell if it was Trauma or a Bad Life Experience

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Life is full of things that happen – both positive and negative but the spectrum of negative experiences ranges from unpleasant to traumatic. We live in an era where it feels like everyone is airing their trauma – but was it really trauma or a bad life experience? As they say, shit happens, but not every negative life experience traumatizes us! Your favorite TV show getting canceled is not traumatic. Both trauma and a bad life experience can tear us apart but trauma is distinctly different from other negative life experiences.

You’d know trauma if it happened to you, right? Well, maybe not. Understanding how we define trauma, the effects it has on us, and the differences between trauma vs. a negative life experience are all important because they can help you figure out how to get help so you can heal.

Let’s Define Trauma

a. a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury
b. an emotional upset

An emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, crime, or natural disaster.

Did that clear it up for you? I didn’t think so. There’s really no clear definition in either the public view or the clinical world. We’re going to define trauma as something an individual experiences as an event or circumstance that results in life-threatening harm, physical harm, or emotional harm that has lasting adverse effects on someone’s mental, physical, or emotional health / social and/or spiritual well-being.

Anyone can be affected by trauma regardless of how old they are, how much money they make, or what their race or religion is. In reality, most people experience trauma at some point but their trauma doesn’t result in lasting mental health issues. In addition, what one person perceives as traumatic may not be seen as trauma by another. That’s right! Two people can have similar experiences and it’s traumatic to one but it’s considered a bad life experience or an adverse life experience.

What’s a Bad Life Experience?

Whether you call it “bad” or “adverse”, we all experience crappy life experiences and difficult situations. Once again, we’re stuck in a situation where there’s no real definition for this but we’re going to define a bad life experience as situations we go through that have an impact on us but don’t fit into our definition of trauma or a traumatic experience. We’re going back to the concept that what’s traumatic to one person is an adverse life experience to another. So, if it doesn’t feel traumatic to you, it might just be a difficult moment or experience.

Both trauma and negative experiences can have an impact on nearly every aspect of our lives from our bodies to our mental health. Researchers are still trying to figure out how those impacts are different. One point that’s worth noting is bad life experiences typically won’t cause something like PTSD. Could it cause anxiety or chronic stress? Absolutely but PTSD is typically caused by trauma. What does that matter? Chronic stress and PTSD are long-term issues that need treatment but they require different treatment types. That’s not to say that EMDR couldn’t treat both issues but how trauma therapy is administered will be different for someone with PTSD vs someone exhibiting chronic stress.

How Do I Know FOR SURE that I Experienced Trauma?

There are a few ways to help you determine if the event you experienced is a traumatic experience or an adverse life experience:

Understand that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will experience all of the signs of trauma. Some people who experience a difficult life event may also have intrusive thoughts and may also avoid stimuli associated with the event. The difference is how often these events occur.

BIG Trauma vs little trauma

Nearly everyone on the planet will experience trauma in their lifetime. Those traumas are bucketed into two categories:

  • Big Trauma or Big T: typically related to a life-threatening situation or event
  • Little Trauma or little t: doesn’t usually involve a disaster, violence, or a life-threatening situation but does cause significant distress


BIG T vs Little T Trauma

Little traumas tend to be more personal events that a lot of us go through. We tend to experience these things more frequently than we would a big trauma. Research shows that repeated exposure to a little trauma can cause you more harm on an emotional level than experiencing one big trauma event. In my practice, I often treat clients where their big trauma wasn’t the catalyst for seeking trauma therapy. The BIG T was just the event that brought all of the little traumas to the surface.

How Do I Get Over a Trauma or Adverse Life Experience?

Well, this is a loaded question – isn’t it? This comes up a lot with clients. As a therapist, I’m inclined to tell you that you don’t ever “get over” a trauma or bad life experience. You can move past it as you start to heal but it’s not something you’re ever going to “get over” and forget. This is where working with a therapist can help.

Healing from Trauma and Other Life Experiences

Signs of Unresolved Trauma

You probably hear this word a lot on social media “heal” – someone is telling you that you need to heal. What they really mean when they say this is you need to process what you experienced. One of the best ways to work through your experiences is with therapy. I know, I’m a therapist and you think I’m supposed to say this. Hear me out! There are so many therapy specialties and modalities these days that working with a therapist to process your experiences is the best way to heal.

As a trauma therapist, I can tell you that trauma therapy can be emotionally taxing because you’re digging up the past and some of its memories which can be painful! But is it more painful than how you’re feeling now? That’s an honest question only you can answer. Every life experience – positive or negative – leaves a mark on us. Negative life experiences can damage us in ways that may only appear after years of trying to keep it all buried. Now is as good of a time as any to relieve yourself of the emotional burden and heal.

Focused Healing in an Efficient Manner

Heal from Trauma & Experiences in a Shorter Time

Whether you went through a BIG T or a little t, you deserve to heal. EMDR Intensives can help.

EMDR Intensives

If you’re looking for accelerated progress, intensive therapy could be your answer