Was it trauma?
‘I don’t know if what happened to me was actually trauma’
‘Mostly my childhood was pretty normal .. Dad just drank a bit (or Mum was always with the put-downs) ..’
‘All that was a long time ago, I’m past all that, I’ve got a good job and a partner who cares, but I can’t seem to trust people / stop crying / get too angry with the kids / recover from this illness …’
Trauma’s a big word and most people don’t apply it to themselves until a therapist says at some point – ‘do you know what happened to you was abuse?’ or ‘I’d like you to understand how that was actually a traumatic experience that is impacting you still’.
Trauma is an outcome, not an event
I’d like to invite you to start seeing trauma not as an event or thing that happened, but as the impact on the nervous system of experiences that were and still can be, intensely dysregulating. That means, sending your nervous system into hyper-arousal (too activated) or hypo-arousal (not enough activation to be present).
So the definition I’m suggesting is:
‘Trauma is the outcome of experiences that generate ongoing, intense and systemic nervous system dysregulation.”
There are four types of life experience that can generate a traumatic response in the nervous system.
1. Shock trauma
- Specific event/s
- Experiencing survival threat, serious injury, sexual violation
- Witnessing or vicarious exposure to same
Shock trauma is the kind of thing more generally understood to be traumatic. It relates generally to one-off events that were overwhelming to your nervous system to the point where you had to shut down to some aspect of life or your inner experience. Typical events that could generate shock trauma include accidents and injury, acute illness or medical procedures, violent attack, natural disaster, unexpected death. Being held at gun point. Any kind of life threatening situation, especially one where you felt powerless.
When shock trauma happens in childhood, it can have a bigger impact than when it happens in adulthood, depending on a bunch of other factors including receiving appropriate care, soothing and empathic response from others after the event and having had a history of secure attachment in childhood.
2. Complex and developmental trauma
- Occur whilst brain and nervous system are developing
- People who were supposed to keep you safe didn’t or couldn’t
- Relates to experiences of abuse and neglect that occurred during the developmental years.
It’s complex for two main reasons:
1. It’s complex because it impacted your nervous system at a time when your nervous system was growing the structures and pathways and programs it would have to work with for the rest of your life. Trauma and abuse that happens during this time has a disproportionately high impact on the nervous system, compared with trauma and abuse that happens for the first time later in life after a safe and secure childhood.
2. It’s complex because it often comes at us from parents, adults, older relatives, sometimes teachers, church leaders, medical professional – the people who were supposed to be safe and keep us safe. Often the abuse is coming directly from these people. Sometimes the abuse may come from elsewhere but for some reason the adults and caregivers were unable to keep us safe or take care of us properly afterwards.
When the abuse or neglect comes from a source that is supposed to keep us safe, it messes with our wiring in a way that inhibits our ability to access safe nurturing, bonding, intimacy and attachment with people into the future and so life becomes a whole lot more difficult. It also messes with our general sense of trust in the flow of life, trust in other people, trust in ourselves and our own feelings, needs and responses. All this has a flow on effect in terms of the way our identity and sense of self forms. It often means low self esteem, poor boundaries and an unclear sense of where you end and others begin and a changeable, unclear or easily disrupted sense of who you are in the world.
3. Adverse childhood experiences (an experience based window into developmental trauma)
- Abuse or neglect
- Challenges to household stability (eg. a parent with an alcohol, substance abuse, anger management or mental health problem)
Adverse childhood experiences are a part of the overall picture of complex or developmental trauma and refer to acts of abuse or neglect. They also include challenges to the household stability, such as being exposed to violent behaviour, having a parent or household member with a mental health condition, a substance abuse problem, having a household member go to gaol and parental separation or divorce.
ACES have been shown to have a significant impact on the likelihood a child will develop a range of psychological, physical health and life management concerns over the mid to long term. More ACES in childhood equals higher likelihood of health, social and life problems down the track. ACES have been extensively studied by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and their collaborative partners over the last twenty or so years.
4. Insecure attachment
- Avoid attachment, emotionally distant, or
- Seek attachment, but anxious and insecure, or
- Confused and disorganised attachment
This refers to the way you learned to seek, avoid or moderate attachment bonding when you were a child, in order to best manage your nervous system activation and your access to needed resources such as love and safety.
Whilst around 50% of the population operates primarily from a secure attachment style (and this can be achieved in adulthood even when it wasn’t available as a child), it is likely that many of you reading this needed to develop what’s called an insecure attachment style when you were young.
It means that one or both parents were not attuned to you consistently enough and not able to meet your needs for care and bonding sufficiently on an ongoing basis. So in response your clever nervous system adapted to either become very cut-off and self contained or to activate anxiously and work extra hard to try and generate connection and hence soothing from parents or caregivers.
This is not necessarily the fault of the parents – often they will have been behaving at the effect of their own unconscious or unresolved trauma and attachment patterning.
To an infant or child, having a care-giver behave in a threatening or neglectful way, is actually having their survival mechanism threatened. It’s in our biology as human beings that we are dependent on the care of others for survival needs when we are young. When this is not sufficiently available or is abused, it registers in the nervous system as a threat to our life and physical survival.
The two primary modes of insecure attachment are (a) avoidant or needing to withdraw from connection to moderate arousal and (b) anxious or working hard to generate connection in order to moderate arousal.
Sometimes a child will express as (c) confused and disorganised in the way they relate to attachment and would be seen as angry, non-responsive or depressed.
Each style makes perfect sense as an adaptation to a particular kind of early childhood environment, in terms of the constancy of love, care, safety, empathic attunement and rich experiences available to the child.
Information about therapy for healing complex trauma here.