Healing From Childhood Trauma

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
- Kahlil Gibran

The intention of this article is to encourage the healing of the traumatized child. Carl Jung said: ” In every adult there lurks a child – an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed and calls for unceasing care, attention and education. That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.” Healing from trauma is a complex and courageous journey back to the eternal child…returning to the inherent longing for wholeness.

Trauma is a penetrating wound and injury, which threatens one’s life. Trauma arrests the course of normal development by its repetitive intrusion of terror and helplessness into the survivor’s life. Chronic child abuse results in fragmentation of the overall personality. Under these conditions identity formation is stymied and a reliable sense of independence within connection is ruptured.

Judith Herman, M.D., wrote in her groundbreaking book “Trauma & Recovery”, “repeated trauma in adult life erodes the structure of the personality already formed, but repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality.” The child trapped in abusive circumstances must find a way to preserve a sense of hope, trust, safety, and meaning under terrifying conditions, which contradict those basic needs. To survive, the traumatized child must resort to primitive psychological defenses. The abusers, who the child is unconditionally dependent on, must be preserved in the child’s psyche as caring and competent, so as to ensure survival. The primary attachment must be preserved at any cost. As a result the child may deny, wall off, excuse or minimize the abuse. Complete amnesias known as dissociative states may occur. Dissociation can be so severe that a fragmentation of the personality can result in the emergence of alter personalities.

The pinnacle of tragedy is that the child must conclude that it is her inherent ‘badness’ that is responsible for the abuse. Paradoxically this tragic conclusion offers the abused child hope that’s/he can change his/her circumstances by becoming ‘good’. Yet despite the child’s relentless and futile efforts to be ‘good’, deep within she feels no one really knows how vile her true self is, and if they did it would certainly ensure exile and ostracism. For children who are sexually abused this perception of self as damaged goods is particularly profound. The sexual violation and exploitation by the abuser becomes internalized as further evidence of her innate badness.

As much as the child struggles to deny, minimize, bargain with and co-exist with the abuse, the impact of chronic trauma seeps into the deep recesses of the psyche and in the body. Psychologist and author Alice Miller states, “our childhoods are stored in our bodies.” What the conscious mind refuses to ‘know,’ the psychological and physical symptoms express. The body speaks of the abuse through chronic hyper-arousal as well as through difficulties sleeping, feeding, and overall disruptions with biological functions. States of dysphoria (confusion, agitation, emptiness and utter aloneness) further amplify the disregulation of the body.

Long after the danger is past, traumatized people relive the events as though it were continually recurring in the present. Traumatic events are re-experienced in an intrusive-repetitive fashion. Themes are re-enacted, nightmares and flashbacks occur, and there is a persistent state of danger and distress.
States of denial and numbing alternate with the intrusive flooding of memories. The stimuli associated with the trauma are avoided through denial and numbing The survivor experiences restricted affect, no recall, diminished interests, and an overall sense of detachment.

As survivors attempt to negotiate adult relationships, the psychological defenses formed in childhood become increasingly maladaptive. The survivor’s intimate relationships are driven by a desperate longing for protection and love, and simultaneously fueled by fears of abandonment and exploitation. From this place, safe and appropriate boundaries cannot be established. As a result patterns of intense, unstable relationships occur, in which dramas of rescue, injustice, and betrayal are repeatedly enacted. Hence, the survivor is at further risk of repeated victimization in adult life.

Recovery from chronic trauma and abuse cannot occur in isolation. The trauma survivor requires a reparative, healing connection with a therapist who will bear witness to a history fraught with inhumanity, while offering empathy, insight, and containment. Through this relationship healing can occur. Control can be restored, along with a renewed sense of personal power and connection to others. For progression in recovery to occur the capacity for self-care and soothing needs to be established. The ability to create a modicum of predictability and self-protection are also necessary. Developing these life skills may entail the incorporation of medication management, relaxation techniques, bodywork, creative outlets, and establishing a replenishing home environment and a responsibility towards basic health needs.

Traumatic losses also require a bereavement process. The survivor must fully face what was done, and what the traumas led the survivor to do under extreme circumstances. The survivor is challenged to mourn the loss of one’s integrity, the loss of trust, the capacity to love, and the belief in a ‘good enough parent’. The survivor now has the ego strength to face the profound level of despair that would have shattered her in childhood. Through the mourning process, the survivor begins to reevaluate her identity as a ‘bad’ person, and in so doing begins to feel worthy of relationships that allow for authenticity and nourishment. Eventually the survivor experiences the traumatic experience as a part of the past, and is ready to rebuild her life in the present. The future now offers possibility and hope.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in “Women Who Run with the Wolves”,
“Being able to say that one is a survivor is an accomplishment. For many, the power is in the name itself. And yet comes a time in the individuation process when the threat or trauma is significantly past. Then is the time to go to the next stage after survivorship, to healing and thriving.” At this stage the trauma survivor is ready to move beyond survival to express freed up potentials. Engaging more actively in the world requires the survivor to identify and pursue ambitions and goals that were previously dormant. She is now able to connect beyond the wounded self/ego and engage in life from a place of Divine creativity. She is ready to love beyond the personality and extend herself through empathy and service. Rather than struggle with resisting loneliness, fear, powerlessness and myriad forms of suffering, she is open to and accepting of all that life contains. She is aware that the lessons towards growth are many.

Much of the reparative work at this stage of recovery involves challenging nihilistic and fatalistic assumptions about the self and the world. The trauma survivor intent on thriving, is challenged to give life to a perspective, a philosophy that goes against her internalized beliefs, and to reconstruct a reality that makes room for the existence of faith and hope. For this to occur the ego must attach to the abstract for a deeper transcendent meaning. Creativity, spiritual belief systems, philosophy, mythology, ethics, service, personal integrity, etc. are all part of that exploration. This exploration lends itself to the survivor discovering a spiritual perspective that is sustaining and affords connection to others.
Integral to this spiritual perspective is the journey towards healing and actualization. This journey has taken on a deeply complex metaphysical meaning, and it informs one’s sense of pride and purpose. It is a journey towards wholeness, where the Divine Child archetype is encountered. Embodied in this archetype is the totality of our being and the transformational power that propels us along the path of personal growth. It is here that one discovers one’s true Self.

Trauma Stigma – We Are Only As Sick As Our Secrets

I had a reminder recently of the stigma facing those dealing with trauma related to childhood abuse.  I have encountered this before of course, perhaps vicariously, during my 20 plus years in the trauma treatment trenches.  As a psychologist specializing in treating trauma I am well aware that many people do not want to be reminded of the less than pleasant aspects of life.  Even mentioning what I do for a living can get me interesting responses, or sometimes just shut down the conversation altogether.

Someone unfollowed me on Twitter, and wrote to inform me,  because I was not a “positive psychologist”. This took me aback  and I tried to understand what led to that impression.  I looked through my most recent Twitter postings to try to see what they saw.  I had been posting, as I always do, about the impact of trauma and had recently written an article about how childhood experiences are linked to adult problems: Childhood Wounds: Understanding Yourself in Context.

“You are only as sick as your secrets”.  If the oft repeated 12 step slogan is true then our culture is indeed sick.  The refusal to acknowledge the link between childhood trauma (big T and little t) and mental health issues of all sorts in adulthood seems to me to be a kind of cultural dissociation.  We would rather blame the victim, or in family systems terms set up the “sick” one as an identified patient, who has bad brain chemistry or has come by their mental “illness” in any way other than as a result of their childhood experiences.

Denying the past dooms us to repeat it. Denying the link between childhood trauma and mental health disorders of many kinds leads to inadequate treatment of the put a band-aid on it sort, no treatment at all, and/or adults who are ill prepared to themselves provide good enough parenting (or protect their children from outside perpetrators).  And thus the cycle continues.

The pervasiveness of childhood trauma and its long lasting impact is the big secret and survivors who try to talk about their experiences are shamed and stigmatized.  We want to view you as other, an anomaly, not the understandable consequence of a sick society.

My Twitter experience felt very much like a reaction to my telling the truth about these issues our culture wants to disavow. If I as a professional am impacted, imagine how much more so this stigma impacts survivors, I was reminded.  The silencing, minimizing and blaming that can occur when a survivor tries to tell their story is a whole other level of traumatization.

This experience reminded me that visibility and conversation about trauma-related topics is crucial.  It is why I see blogging and using social media to be an important part of my work as a trauma therapist.  By speaking out about trauma and its impact I hope to support those who must live with it and to educate those who do not yet understand.

What else can we do to combat trauma-related stigma?

-Stop blaming the victim.  Speak up as an ally when you hear victim blaming conversations.  Those who have been abused and need to get help for it are not the problem. Abuse and the systems that allow it to continue are.

-Understand that avoidance, denial, not talking about childhood trauma and abuse does not make it better. If a survivor could just think it away, they would have long ago.

- Realize that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. Our environment (how we are nurtured) effects our brain chemistry. “Chemical imbalances” as the cause of psychological problems rarely exist in a vacuum.

Please do share your experiences with stigma related to trauma issues, or mental health in general,  and how you combat and cope with this.

The Key To Emotional Trauma: The Fight Or Flight Response

Imagine that you are approaching an icy, busy intersection. Oh no… even the perception of slipping and crashing is enough to signal the brain into action. Our brains are biologically wired to react instantaneously when we are threatened with danger. The Fight or Flight response readies the body for intense muscular effort, supported by all of the body’s systems.

So what actually happens when the brain switches gears? Envision sitting in a roller coaster just about to take off. You begin to feel your heart pound, palms sweat, arms tingle, breathing becomes rapid and a feeling of electricity flows through your body. In reality you are actually experiencing the first in a series of biochemical reactions sponsored by the fight or flight brain center called the “Amygdala.” The hormone that is actually released is called adrenaline. Your body is now ready to go into protect mode.

To support this emergency response system, the thinking center of our brain is taken offline. After all, you do not have time to think. Muscular action takes over and does what is necessary to protect you.

Now that your body has been bathed in adrenaline, what happens next? A new biochemical called “endorphins” is released. Unlike the energetic adrenaline, endorphins produce the “freeze response,” a natural anesthetic that helps the body calm itself down. People report feeling in shock as if they don’t know where they are or what truly happened.

So what is so wrong with this bio-chemical response? For most people exposed to trauma, with a little time and TLC, they will recover. Others for a variety of reasons, will develop residual symptoms and may over time, get worse.

For people suffering from trauma-related illness, it’s as if the limbic system, the home of the amygdala, begins to short-circuit. Every aspect of the original trauma, no matter how large or small, becomes highly charged. So whenever something in the person’s environment reminds the brain of the trauma, the fight or flight response gets retriggered over and over again.

Now you can see how feelings of anxiety and at times, panic develop and you may not even know why. As this pattern continues and the symptoms intensify, people will begin to withdraw and feel isolated and alone.

Each event that connects the brain to a traumatic memory creates a retraumatizing event. You just “feel and feel” with no ability to think through what just happened. Shame, guilt and anger predominate and the trauma just does not get resolved. The person remains stuck in the “freeze response stage” never to re-emerge as the same person again.

Dissociation is another way that the brain copes with trauma. Dissociation trauma is described in psychology as a state in which people feel disconnected from their own senses, personal history or from their basic sense of self. This is why so often people do not recognize that their present state may be related to trauma experienced in earlier life. They may go a lifetime making decisions that are driven by reaction to past experience rather than on the best available data provided by the thinking mind.

Hopefully this article has provided interesting insight into how past experience can adversely affect quality of life and why the person may not even be aware of it. If you suspect or have some information suggesting that your past life experience was traumatic in some way, don’t hesitate to seek assistance. Your past does not need to determine your future anymore.