Nicole Lewis-Keeber
5 min readMay 31, 2021


Big T Trauma vs. little t trauma: The Continued Effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Before you read any further, I want to preface this article by letting you know that we’ll be discussing the definition and effects of childhood trauma in this post. Please take care of yourself and make sure this is a topic that you want to engage with today.

Recently Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry co-authored a book called What Happened to You that provided real insight into the problematic way that society views trauma in general. There is a fundamental flaw in the way that trauma tends to be interpreted by those around us, and it’s only by changing the narrative that we can change the way we view the ongoing effects of adverse childhood experiences.

I could not be more thrilled that this book is out there and that it’s taking the first step in changing the discussion around childhood trauma.

What’s Wrong With How We View Trauma?

For decades, we’ve seen trauma as somehow the fault of the person experiencing it. The question we’ve asked around a person acting out due to trauma has been “what is wrong with you?”. This implies that their reaction is somehow problematic.

The question we should be asking is “what happened to you”. When a person’s actions are dictated by childhood trauma, they are reacting to what happened to them. It’s not a fundamental problem with their personality, it’s a learned alteration to their behavior, influenced by an occurrence outside of their control.

So, What Is The Definition of Trauma?

Well, that is the question, isn’t it! In fact, trained clinicians and industry professionals can’t agree on what trauma really is. There is quite a bit of discussion about what qualifies as trauma and what does not. That’s why it makes sense that you are confused about what trauma actually is. Even the professionals can’t decide on it! Dr. Perry suggests an interesting and comprehensive definition that respects the multiple types of trauma and also allows for a more diverse and inclusive use of the word.

Dr. Perry defines trauma as any pattern activating your stress response system that leads to an alteration of how the system functions. There are no specifics or details specifying what qualifies an event as traumatic or how the behavior is connected to the event. His definition refers to any experience and an effect that looks different from person to person.

The main point I love about this definition is that anything can be a trauma. Anything that happens to anyone can be a traumatic experience, and no one, professional or otherwise, has the right to judge a situation as “not big enough” to be a trauma.

Trauma vs. trauma

One of the most common conversations I have with people in coaching and in therapy is about the definition of trauma. Many people will say that they can identify an event in their past that influences their behavior but that they aren’t sure it qualifies as Trauma. We’ve all had someone dismiss our experience or reaction because it “happens to everyone” or in their mind, it’s “not a big deal”. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a traumatic experience. That’s why I like to think of traumas into two groups: Trauma vs. trauma.

Big-T Traumas are major events that everyone would objectively agree are traumatic, the moments that most people would classify as life-changing. However, small-t traumas are just as prevalent, just as problematic, and just as important to consider.

Small-t traumas are typically more cumulative experiences that add up and manifest in the same way as Big-T Traumas. These can come from systematic experiences that create an activated emotional state or any experiences that make you lose hope, feel less safe, or change how you feel about yourself.

Whichever classification you would give to your trauma- because it’s your interpretation that matters- it has the same effect on your brain. There is absolutely no difference between the effect of one large Trauma or many smaller traumas on your brain. In every case, it changes how your nervous system activates and by extension, changes your behavior.

How the Changed Definition Of Trauma Helps

The social interpretation of trauma today is centered around major traumas, a trauma that everyone agrees is terrible. This presupposes that the rest of the world defines what our trauma is allowed to be. But that should absolutely not be the case! Anything can be traumatic to anyone and it’s time we start using the word to call a thing what it is. The definition of trauma doesn’t have anything to do with the event itself. It’s all about the reaction. And when we start allowing the reaction to define the event, there will be more understanding of the long-term impact of trauma and how people can heal.

Keep in mind that most people rejected the idea that adverse childhood experiences could carry over into adulthood and have the effect of creating physical and mental health issues. Re-defining what trauma is will mean having more conversations and certainly, some people will need to catch up. But there are only positive results that can come from reclaiming the word trauma and using it to describe those events that you identify in your past as your trauma.

I could not be more thrilled to see the direction that this conversation is heading. It will be amazing to see how this new definition will change the way people understand their actions and by extension, how their childhood experiences affect their business. If you’re interested in more of my own interpretations of how trauma can carry over into the running of your business, you can check out my book How to Love Your Business: Stop Recreating Trauma and Have a Business You Love- And That Loves You Back. You can also hear more about Oprah and Dr. Perry’s new book during their interview with Brene Brown. And I cannot recommend What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing enough! This book will give you so much insight into how to understand your personal history and how you can not only redefine trauma for yourself but ultimately for those around you.

Nicole Lewis-Keeber MSW LCSW is a business therapist and coach for small business owners, entrepreneurs, and leaders. She explores the impact of childhood trauma on entrepreneurship and can be found @ Nicole Lewis-Keeber Coaching on Facebook and @Nicole.Lewiskeeber on Instagram.

Are you curious about how trauma could be impacting your own business? Download my Trauma & Entrepreneurship Assessment here.



Nicole Lewis-Keeber

Nicole Lewis-Keeber MSW LCSW is a business therapist and speaker helping entrepreneurs to create & nurture healthy relationships with their business.