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Reflections on ‘small t’ trauma

Reflections on ‘small t’ trauma

The Thursday before Easter I walked into the practice with a spring in my step as I was looking forward to having a couple of days off (the first ones since coming back to work after the summer break) and I was met with an unusual sight.  There was water running under the (closed) door of the bubble tea shop above the office, which had created quite the waterfall running down the stairs.  As I approached the front door my fears were realised as there was water also running out underneath, and as I unlocked the door I was met by darkness and water pouring on my head from above.  I think I squealed (maybe, probably swore) and quickly tried to make sense of what on earth I’d walked into.

I’m sharing these reflections because as a therapist who works with trauma regularly, I found my reactions and responses fascinating!  I’ve spent a lot of time pondering them and making sense of it and I think it speaks so strongly to what I talk about in session almost every day.  So, getting back to what happened next…

I quickly took off my Birkenstocks because there was more than 1cm of water by the front door – the floor tiles had lifted off the concrete beneath and were floating!  I established that the water was forcefully coming out through the ceiling lights, smoke alarm and even the fuse box – but the ceiling was intact.  There was water all through the bathroom, the kitchen and as far as I could tell the front room and halfway up the corridor to my room.  As I dashed up there to a dry spot (and to check whether my books and my PhD research had been affected) I was staring at my phone in a state of sheer panic.  I was holding at it and could not for the life of me focus on what I should do.  I remember saying out loud, “what do I do?” on repeat and then when I registered that I should phone the landlord I literally could not remember his name and heard myself shouting in my head “what’s his name, what IS his name, why I can’t I remember his name…” with a rising sense of panic.

Then this other voice (my inner trauma therapist) said very slowly and calmly, “Thea, you don’t have access to your prefrontal cortex right now because your amygdala is firing, and that’s why you can’t remember his name – you need to just take a breath.” Turns out that inner therapist of mine knows a thing or two, because as I focused on making some lovely long exhale breaths through my mouth my landlord’s name popped into my head like it had always been there.  Glad she decided to chip in when she did.

Unfortunately, my landlord didn’t pick up the phone.  On any of the three times I phoned him in increasing desperation.  Little did I know he was literally being discharged from hospital after a messy hip replacement surgery!  Then my thoughts turned to all of the clients who were expecting to come in that day and immediately called the admin team – unfortunately it was only 7:50am in Queensland where they are based so they didn’t pick up either.  And then I called Bea – the other clinician due in that day – but she didn’t answer either (early morning school day).  And then I noticed that even though I now had access to my ‘thinking’ brain (prefrontal cortex) I was actually feeling really quite upset, and could identify that I was running a series of quite critical, blaming and mean conversations in my head.  Towards myself.

As I stood there barefoot in the dark with water in places it had no right being, I was acutely aware of all the very familiar negative beliefs that I have about myself running riot in my thoughts.  “You’re stupid, you have done something wrong, haven’t made good choices – and you’re going to be found out now as the bad person that you really are.”  Then I reached out to a friend who helps me with my commercial leases / negotiations and all that business stuff.  Thank goodness he answered!  He was calm and clear, and when I pleadingly said, (I honestly sounded like a little girl) “please will you help me?” he reassured me.  I was almost immediately more settled.  I didn’t feel so alone anymore.

A man then showed up with a mop and bucket, the owner of the shop upstairs turned up and the water was turned off upstairs.  The wife of my landlord turned up (honestly a legend of a woman who mucked in and helped mop, move furniture, and rip up carpet floor tiles), closely followed by Bea (whose first response was to embrace me in a wonderful warm hug) and my partner who had lights, muscles, and useful tools!  As soon as I was surrounded by safe helpers, and I was no longer alone in the dark, wet, sad-looking practice I was able to act.  And the unhelpful negative chatter settled right down.

This whole incident was a highly inconvenient nuisance that has cost me time and money, but it was little more than that.  No one was hurt or injured, very little furniture had to be replaced – and thanks to some incredible hard work and team effort by lots of lovely humans we have been able to get back up and running within 10 days – it truly could have been so very much worse! It was what we call a ‘small t’ trauma event.  But wowsers it’s interesting that my brain did all the things in a classic trauma-response fashion.  I’m so thankful that I was able to notice what was happening in my brain almost as it was happening and because of what I know (and because this is not my first personal trauma rodeo!) I was able to practice what I preach.

These three things are my take-home messages:

  1. When faced with a traumatic event our brain doesn’t work the way that we are used to – when we are emotionally distressed, we will find it hard to think clearly, act clearly and access the information in our brain we know is there! Our first job is to get a little more regulated.
  2. In the midst of something traumatic we will often need others to co-regulate us. We are not meant to deal with hard things alone.
  3. If you’ve experienced trauma before, and then experience something traumatic later in your life it is quite common to find the same negative core beliefs showing up. The more we work with them, get to know them, the easier they are to identify!


If you need a safe space to talk about trauma and how it impacts your mental health, please get in touch with us: / / 03 9077 8194.