What are tiny traumas and how do they affect our mental health?

Modern life can be stressful at the best of times, with pressures on us from all angles as we hold down jobs, keep up with household chores and for some, run around after children.

While we may think we are coping well, sometimes stress can build up when we don’t realise it.

Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist and author of Tiny Traumas, argues that so-called ‘tiny traumas’ can plague our daily lives and pile on the pressure as we bury the difficulties we face.

But what are ‘tiny traumas’ and how can we become more aware of them? Dr Meg explained to FEMAIL how the little things can create bigger problems down the line, and how we can spot them in our lives.

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What are ‘tiny traumas’? 

Dr Meg describes tiny traumas as ‘everyday psychological wounds’ that keep building up over time. She describes them as ’emotional injury from a thousand paper cuts’.

Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist and author of Tiny Traumas, argues that so-called ‘tiny traumas’ can plague our daily lives and pile on the pressure as we bury the difficulties we face (stock image)

She explained: ‘These everyday hurts can include microaggressions at work, the lingering effects of feeling like the black sheep of the family and a whole host of slights, betrayals and societal expectations that no one can possibly live up to all the time. 

‘This is a new way of looking at mental health, which shows that our psychological wellbeing is a spectrum from flourishing to not functioning at all.’

Dr Meg added that people in generaly tend to be psychologically robust, however in the face of major trauma or several tiny traumas, human emotions can become ‘withered and raw’ and leave people ‘at the end of [their] tether’ and ‘constantly overwhelmed’.

She said people can be left suffering with problems including: ‘High-functioning anxiety, problems with falling and staying asleep, emotional eating and being stuck in between life stages, unable to move on or enjoy the simplest of pleasures.’

How do tiny traumas occur throughout the day? 

1. Alarm goes off:

Dr Meg explained many people with unresolved tiny traumas struggle with sleep.

She said: ‘Hypervigilance throughout the day makes it hard to switch off at night.

In her new book, released today, Dr Meg describes tiny traumas as 'everyday psychological wounds' that keep building up over time

In her new book, released today, Dr Meg describes tiny traumas as ‘everyday psychological wounds’ that keep building up over time

‘Being on red alert like this, either because of anxiety, busy-itis or being a highly sensitive person in an over-stimulating world can make it near impossible to dip into slumber as our innate stress response will always override the urge to sleep. 

‘So you tried to relax last night by watching a video on your phone, but one turned into two, into three and you fell into a TinyT pattern of bedtime revenge procrastination (where you subsciously rebel against a full-on day that had no me-time whatsoever), meaning it was the early hours by the time you finally put down your smartphone.’

She recommended people try to ‘deactivate’ during the day.

‘Pepper waking hours with small activities of self-care to limit this self-sabotaging routine,’ she said.

2. Breakfast time: 

Dr Meg explained breakfast time can be a time when ‘parent guilt’ sets in for people who have children and also hold down jobs.

She said we are surrounded by messages that we should have careers that are fulfilling and pay well, while also being the ‘perfect parent who keeps their cool in morning chaos’.

‘It is these unrealistic expectations that can act as societal TinyT as they lead to insecurity, chronic worry, guilt and shame,’ she explained.

‘It seems like everyone else can juggle all the areas of their life, so why can’t I? When you feel like this, chat to other parents – no one else is doing it all perfectly either!’ 

3. Mid-morning:

According to Dr Meg, this is the time when work stresses begin to pile up. 

‘An email from a colleague comes in that makes you feel, well, rather confused,’ she said. 

‘On the surface it seems like praise, but this particular person keeps making these back-handed compliments such as “Your report was great! Isn’t your work amazing considering your background!”. 

‘Along with repeated interruptions in meetings and crossing boundaries with regards to personal space, this is a clear pattern of microaggression in the workplace, a frequent form of TinyT in modern life. 

‘You can challenge microaggressions with paraphrasing, asking for clarification or a direct approach, but do seek support from the relevant contact in your organisation because no one should endure this inappropriate behaviour.’

4. Lunchtime:

Dr Meg explained hearing from a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while can raise your stress levels.

‘You have a sense that this friendship from school is pretty one-sided but everytime you even come close to mentioning it, she starts to ghost you,’ she explained.

‘Then after a while, and seemingly when she needs something, the breadcrumbing starts again. We only have limited capacity at any one point in time for our relationships – for close ones, it’s the number of fingers on one hand. 

‘When we retain unfulfilling friendships, we’re using up that valuable space that could be dedicated to someone who nurtures, not gaslights and drains you with ghosting and breadcrumbing TinyT behaviours.’

The psychologist explained her process for dealing with this type of behaviour from a friend or partner, called OWN.

It involves having an open conversation with that person, taking an approach of ‘wonder and curiosity’ rather than criticism. She also said it’s important to be willing to say ‘no’ to the friendship if it is not serving your needs.  

5. Afternoon:

As the post-lunch slump sets in, many people can turn to social media to while the time away. But according to Dr Meg, this can raise our stress levels significantly.

‘You start to feel overwhelmed with everything that’s happening in the world,’ she said.

‘Living in the digital space can create its own set of TinyT as our stress response is continually triggered. 

‘Instead, focus on your personal sphere of influence, i.e. the things in life you have direct influence over, and limit news consumption to short periods in the day – two half hour slots is plenty to keep up-to-date on world events.’

6. Commute home: 

‘After such a long day you start to feel a bit panicky on the tube,’ Dr Meg explained.

‘The amount of people and crush during the commute gives you a sense of a frightening scrum you experienced as a child. 

You feel frustrated by this as it was such a long time ago and no one was hurt – but the thing about TinyTs is when we undermine and dismiss our feelings, we do not develop coping strategies that could alleviate this psychological wound. 

‘Using breathing exercises can help in this situation, as well as relaxation apps to calm the nervous system in triggering environments, whilst repeating to yourself “I am safe”.’

7. Evening: 

Although you can feel relief when you come home, Dr Meg argues there are still aspects of home life that can cause ‘tiny traumas’.

‘The house is a tip and everyone needs to be fed,’ she said.

‘The sense of resentment is rising – “why is all the cooking always left to me?” you think why glaring at your other half. 

‘Later on, he asks you what’s up and you suddenly snap, then feel ashamed for shouting. Your partner is quite surprised and asks why you didn’t say you could do with a hand before – then it dawns on you that you’ve always been the ‘helper’ in your family dynamics. 

‘This type of people-pleasing often stems from childhood – you need to be needed as this was your role when you were young. But it’s exhausting and there must be a better way than this TinyT pattern.’

She advised: ‘To tackle people-pleasing tendencies, start small and allow other people to play their part – this is called a behavioural experiment and it is an exercise often used in cognitive behavioural therapy. 

‘Observe how you feel, the outcome of allowing others to take some of the load and be kind to yourself during the process.’

Tiny Traumas by Dr Meg Arroll is available to buy from today 

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