Trauma doesn't always have a 'capital T'

When the word ‘trauma’ is mentioned, people often make assumptions. They tend to presume you are talking about the catastrophes of life; living through a war, getting into a car crash, that sort of thing. It’s an understandable assumption. Few of us would want to think of ourselves as ‘traumatised’. However, it might be worth getting to know what trauma really is.


What is trauma?

Looking the word up in any dictionary, it will often be defined as ‘pain’ or ‘injury’ or ‘shock with potentially long-lasting effects’, and this is a good place to start, because none of these necessarily imply a world-shattering event. To use a popular therapy metaphor; imagine we all have a bucket that we carry everywhere with us. Every time we feel stressed, we pour water in that bucket, and the amount of water depends on how stressful we find something. At the end of the day, we rest, and that rest, ideally, empties the bucket so we can start again tomorrow.

A trauma is, put very simply, any moment when you get so much stress that it causes the bucket to overflow. Straight away we can see this working. If we get into a car accident and break a bone, that’s more than enough to fill even the most empty bucket. However, the same effect can actually occur over longer periods.

If you’ve got a stressful job, and you’re not resting well enough to empty your bucket, all of a sudden the ceiling for a trauma is much lower for you. In that scenario, a particularly difficult day ending in an argument could be enough. Suddenly your bucket reaches capacity, and you may snap at someone or burst into tears, but either way, the crisis point has been reached and you have experienced a trauma.

So what happens in this moment?

Well, your brain takes a snapshot of everything it can perceive in fine detail. Smells, sounds, people present, even the colour of the wallpaper. It stores all that information in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. This is the very same system that controls your fight/flight/freeze responses; things that we evolved as survival methods in the wild. 

And it makes good sense why we would store information like that. Let’s imagine our cave-dwelling ancestors, out foraging for food. They see some animal tracks they don’t recognise. Then, all at once, a giant animal with big sharp pointy teeth springs howling out of the underbrush. Our ancestral stress buckets become full to the brim, their brain takes a snapshot (or cave painting) and they flee. Maybe a few years go by. The tribe goes about the business of survival. But then one day, they notice a set of paw prints in the mud, and they aren’t quite sure why, but the sight of those prints bring up feelings of great trepidation. As a result, the tribe changes hunting grounds and avoids a potentially dangerous encounter with a wild beast.

Useful, right? 

But here’s the problem; there came a point where these tribal ancestors evolved such powerful brains that they started to change their environment to suit their needs. Survival of the fittest no longer applied. Eventually, they became us, and they never quite grew out of those old systems that kept us safe in the wild jungles and punishing ice ages. 

I’ll give you a real-world example; I, like many other dyspraxic people, struggle with maths. In fact, up until a few years ago, I often felt quite uneasy around the subject, bordering on irrationally anxious. “This will not do” I decided, and booked a therapy session with one of my colleagues. 

After doing a couple of simple exercises, I came upon a memory of when I was eleven years old. I hadn’t done a good job with my maths homework, I knew I would be hearing about it later that day, and my maths teacher had a reputation for being quick to anger. Not only did I have the whole day to worry about the inevitable dressing down, but I also got yelled at for being late to an earlier lesson. Suffice to say, when it came to the maths lesson, I could barely concentrate from worry, and when I got yelled at for failing to put in enough effort, I ended up having a little cry.

Now, the most important part of this anecdote is the following:I was eleven years old. 

The human brain doesn’t reach maturity until the mid-to-late 20s. At age eleven, we are only just starting to develop abstract thinking (the idea that things might have multiple meanings). So that means before I had the mental faculties to properly interpret the nuance in situations, I had acquired a ‘full bucket moment’ in relation to the subject of mathematics. That moment got stored in my amygdala just like the shape of the paw prints from a mystery predator, and it remained there for the next 30 years. Because why would the brain easily get rid of something that it might need to remember in order to survive?

After a fairly straightforward session with my colleague, I was able to resolve and move away from this low-level trauma. Now I’m able to do basic mathematics without my subconscious sending that strange sense of stress; that oblique danger signal that something might be waiting to pounce. With that gone, I have one less source of water for the stress bucket. I’d hardly say it’s changed my life much, but I am probably about 5% less stressed on any given day. And if each little bit of unwarranted pre-teen trauma can be equated to 5% of stress, we can see how quickly things may snowball for the better if every single one of them is resolved through therapy.

What’s particularly funny is that my conscious mind had almost completely forgotten about the original incident. I had written it off as something that happened a long time ago, that wasn’t relevant anymore. How wrong I was.

And I wonder how many of us have a similar experience of childhood panic that is still there somewhere, ticking away, just waiting to be resolved so our lives can become another 5% easier? Statistically speaking, it’s all of us.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Currie, Midlothian, EH14
Written by Lloyd Robinson, DSFH, HPD, BA (Hons)
Currie, Midlothian, EH14

Lloyd Robinson is a clinical hypnotherapist, motivational speaker, and writer working in South West Edinburgh. You can find more details about his practice at

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