In therapeutic circles today everyone is talking about trauma. There have been ground-breaking discoveries in the last two decades about how people become traumatised and how we can recover from trauma. The research shows us that trauma is physiological as well as psychological and that healing from trauma requires somatic as well as psychological processing. There are ways to recover from trauma that were unknown until recently and now trauma sufferers have good reason to feel optimistic.
Trauma is an inevitable part of human experience. Every person on the planet has experienced trauma. So developments in this field are of enormous consequence.
When most people think about the word trauma things like war, rape, violence and abuse come to mind. Yes, these are events likely to lead to trauma. However as trauma pioneer Peter Levine says “trauma is not in the event, it is in the nervous system”. It is in how we process the event and recover from it or not. Experiences such as war and rape usually lead to trauma because the events are so overwhelming to the victims that being able to process and move through the fight/flight responses is usually impossible. Traumas resulting from these types of events are sometimes referred to as big T traumas and much of work which has developed in the last two decades about trauma recovery has focused on post-traumatic stress disorder related to big T traumas.
Over the years I have worked with many people recovering from experiences including rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and near fatal accidents. Yet some of my clients have not experienced these things and yet show clear signs of trauma.
Symptoms are always chronic and include one or more of: anxiety, hopelessness, depression, lethargy, numbness, feelings of unreality, detached or dissociated experience, overwhelming emotions, self-hatred, exhaustion, difficulty relating to others or maintaining relationships, pain and physical disorders which are inexplicable to the medical profession.
Often what is afoot here is attachment trauma – seen as a ‘small t’ trauma – failure to form a secure attachment with the main care-giver in the first years of life. Attachment trauma is so wide-spread it is the silent epidemic of our times. It leads to huge psychological and physical suffering with enormous consequences for community, economy, environment, everything in fact, because it affects how we relate to other people, to animals, to ourselves and to the world we inhabit.
Dr. Allan Schore calls it “trauma in the first 1000 days, conception to age two.”
While developing in the womb, at birth and in the first couple of years of life we are creating the blue-prints of our lives ahead. We are learning at a phenomenal rate. As the brain and nervous system develop and inform the growing body-mind, neurons connect based on our experience, making pathways that direct our own becoming and the life we will have. Perhaps the life we will lead is written in the stars but without a doubt it is written in our neural pathways.
In the womb the little one grows in a fluid ocean of everything mom feels and experiences. “What mother feels is what I am” is the motto of the embryo. Even after birth and for the first couple of years the relationship with mom (or main care-giver) is the main creator of this human being. The holding environment created by mom is the womb now, the holding environment is the inter-personal space between mom and little one and it is here that the little one continues to be formed.
In the first years we exist in a state of oneness, a non-boundaried, connected place – a place which can be heaven or hell. A baby feels everything 100%. A baby who feels cold becomes the experience of cold, a hungry baby is the hunger, a baby who feels loved is love, at this stage there is no differentiation between me and my experience. No differentiation between me and my environment, no differentiation between me and my mother. Because there is no ‘me’ yet. ‘Me’ is created gradually as the brain develops and usually this happens somewhere between 2 and 3 years old as the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, comes on-line.
If blessed with safe, loving, well-attuned and empathetic care-givers, who are able to create a good enough holding, then there is a possibility that the personality that is created is in resonance with the most innate basic being of this little one. Whether the little one has a good enough holding environment will depend hugely on the attachment to mom. If the attachment is secure than the infant feels safe enough and this safety become the base line of their being. I can trust my mom, I know she is there, I know she loves me, I have enough space, enough holding, enough tenderness, etc., then I feel I am enough. I am able to rest into simply being and my development is an unfolding from this basic state.
Insecure attachment however is terrifying for a little one. The fear that a baby feels when the relationship with mom is not secure is not like anything we know as adults unless we have experienced a gun to our heads. This is because for a baby, their survival depends entirely on being taken care of by another. They cannot meet their own basic needs for food, shelter, touch, etc. If they are not sure mom is really there and wants to care for them then the fear that is felt is the fear of death.
Actually this is what trauma is – the fear of death frozen in time. Fear sequences through the body when we can get away from the source of fear or fight it off. In the case of a baby with its mom – these are not options and if the fear is big enough often enough – the baby gets stuck with it. It becomes part of them.
Perhaps there is a lot of stress at home, perhaps mom has her own unresolved trauma, maybe she is distant and cold, or overly clingy and needy, or scared, or angry. It need not be anything huge to have a huge impact. This is subtle and profound, because to be engulfed in an atmosphere so intensely and consistently at such a young age impacts on every aspect of this developing human being. It is much like how a tree or plant will be influenced by the soil and winds and overall environment in which is grows.
Our senses peripheral nervous system take the information of what this world is like in to the brain and from there neural connections are made which inform the rest of the developing body and mind, which hormones to produce – endorphins if the world is love, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline if the world is fear. It affects our developing immune system, our developing digestive system; in fact everything grows based on this information.
As Darwin explained we are adaptive beings, we survive only if we adapt to our environment. When the environment within which a child grows is not safe enough than rather than this personality emerging purely from a basic state of being our psyches split and the personality and body that develop are based on defensive survival strategies and self-protection. And the person may grow up feeling out of touch with themselves, others and the world they inhabit.
“Children with insecure attachment patterns have trouble relying on others to help them, while unable to regulate their emotional states by themselves. As a result, they experience excessive anxiety, anger and longings to be taken care of. These feelings may become so extreme as to precipitate dissociative states or self-defeating aggression…” Dr. van der Kolk .
This is still the experience of these children when they become adults and this is what is bringing most of my clients into my studio.
Attachment trauma is a type of developmental trauma. When secure attachment is not achieved then we do not have the foundation or steady ground upon which our developing selves can grow and flourish. With insecure attachment the child’s development is greatly impinged and as adults in therapy people often feel the places where developmental stages were not completed. Adults for example who have never managed to achieve a sense of individuality and feel themselves still in the infantile merged place, without adequate boundaries and personhood. This is a very confusing existance, where someone is still feeling others emotions to be their own and is often overwhelmed by external stimuli. Or on the other end of the spectrum people who feel themselves solidly but find it impossible to achieve any sense of intimacy or closeness with another and feel lonely or lost much of the time. There are many shades of insecure attachment. Some have been labelled and researched: ‘avoidant’, ‘ambivalent’, ‘disorganised’ and there are as many nuances and manifestations of attachment as there are individuals.
One to one therapy is essential for healing attachment trauma and coming to a place of security in oneself. Woundings that occur in relationship need to be healed in relationship. Group therapy can also be very useful at times in the journey. Healing attachment trauma takes time – there is no quick fix. The neural connections which were formed early on need to change, and change they can, one by one, through repeated positive relational experiences which can offer repair.
Healing from trauma and developing resiliency in the world requires the felt sense of safety and of being attuned to by an empathetic other as this is what was missing to begin with. It is essential to find a therapist with whom you can feel safe and who you believe cares about you. The therapist needs also to have a good understanding of attachment trauma and be trained to work somatically (with the body) as well as psychologically.
To undertake such a healing journey is to open up the possibility of becoming the person you most truly are, it is entering a new becoming, where a felt sense of safety and easefulness could allow you to exist in the world as an individual who is in a state of flow and connection.
As Carl Jung said be “willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.” The journey of healing trauma has been for many of the people I have worked with a gateway to positive transformation. It is a physical, psychological and spiritual journey home to who you really are.