Trauma is a popular word these days. We hear it everywhere. But when you ask someone to define it, answers are often vague. We hear words like ‘stressed out’ and ‘overwhelming’, but how is that translated into what is actually experienced when hijacked by trauma?
Trauma is unbearable and intolerable. (Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Psychiatrist)
It can occur whenever we are so overwhelmed by what is happening we feel we may not survive.
Importantly, it is a physiological response, wired within our brain. When this ancient alarm system goes off, deep below our rational brain, our entire being defaults to survival mode. It mobilizes brain circuitry to secrete massive amounts of stress hormones to overcome the threat and to ensure survival of the organism. This powerful threat response is shared by ALL species of mammals on our planet. Trauma lives in our body, the body bears its burden (Robt. Scaer, MD, rehabilitative neurologist) and keeps the score (van der Kolk).
In the animal world, life and death is clearly defined by prey and predator. With human evolution we have experienced a 2-edged challenge. On the one hand, our executive brain has developed exponentially with each new learning skill – from long ago discovering fire to 20th century orbiting space and currently all the wonders of technology. This “thinking” avalanche has brought us to where we are today, digitally connected in evermore sophisticated and remarkable ways.
Tragically, however, when we perceive threat, our executive high level brain goes off-line and we default to more ancient parts of our brain that are solely dedicated to survival. (A. Damasio,MD, neurologist & Alan Schore, PhD, developmental psychobiology) We are then primed for a traumatic experience.
It is only in a state of safety that higher level functioning can resume. We are indeed “held hostage” by this primitive survival response (Peter Levine, PhD medical biophysicist, trauma)
But there is hope: with support, these mobilized disturbed threat/trauma circuits can be rewired through the brain’s neuroplasticity. (Damasio et al) Our ancient survival response has an innate physiological impulse to move toward wholeness. The principle of homeostasis is at work throughout the physical world and it is at work within us as well. Hebbe’s Law: Neurons that fire together, wire together (1949)
Trauma not only affects the individual. Within the world of trauma, confusion, helplessness and hopelessness reaches out its icy fingers into the family and into society. Its unpredictable destructiveness touches us all.
Through the study of epigenetics, (Bruce Lipton PhD, stem cell biologist) we understand that it can even affect future generations by altering our genetic code. The activation and deactivation of genes is damaged by the continued onslaught of stress hormones flooding the body from fear and high anxiety. This has long term results not only for mental health, but for physical disease such as heart, stroke, and cancer.
The well-documented effects on combat veterans, victims of accidents and crimes, the abuse and neglect of sexual and family violence and addiction are its consequences.
Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families and our neighbours. It is the hidden epidemic that has emerged as one of the great public health challenges of our time.
Copyright Laurene Winkler, 2014
Childhood trauma – What is it?
Parenting is not an easy job. As adults, we bring our early life experiences with us and often unconsciously reenact behaviours we learned from our own parents when we were children. In healthy stable family relationships this affords children a priviledged head-start in life.
But when parents themselves are suffering from unresolved childhood issues, this carries forward to the next generation. And children pay the price.
There are two kinds of trauma: Shock trauma and Complex Developmental trauma.
Shock trauma centers on incidents such as a motor vehicle accidents, serious injury or falls, emergency surgery – a single event. A healthy individual can usually overcome the effects of this crisis with support and time.
However, if the incident triggers unresolved issues of abuse or neglect that were learned early in life, then these associations become complex developmental trauma.
Complex trauma is a much greater challenge to resolve. It means that an incident (shock) in adulthood now pairs up with unconscious responses that were put in place very early in life. Cycles perpetuate themselves through generations and cultures.
Children are growing and just as their physical bodies change from year to year, so also does their brain.
Infants are helpless and vulnerable. They require constant care to meet their needs. The infant has not developed his ‘thinking’ brain (the pre-frontal cortex).
So infants meet the environment through their feeling body and the five senses. Needs are expressed by crying and if those needs are ignored or met with abusive negative responses from the caregiver, the infant perceives this as a threat to his very survival and a cascade of stress hormones floods his body. It is this repeated physiological response that gets entrenched in the young brain: “This world is a dangerous and unpredictable place.”
As the thinking part of the brain develops, the child perceives that somehow he was the cause of his unhappiness, that he is the cause of the unpredictable chaos at home, and that he is bad. It takes a caring skilled therapist to gently rework this disidentification of self and bring the person to understand 2 fundamental principles of recovery.
1. That as a vulnerable child, you did what you needed to do simply to survive
2. That you are a worthwhile and unique person but as a young child were subjected to an untenable, hostile and impossible environment.
There are statistics below that outline the pervasive frequency of abuse in our society.
And there is a link to TED talk given by pediatrician Dr. Burke Harris about the correlation between early childhood trauma and adult disease and early death.
Copyright Laurene Winkler, 2015
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA).
It can be assumed that Canada has similar findings.
1 in 5 was sexually molested as a child
1 in 4 was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body
1 in 3 couples engages in physical violence
1 in 4 grew up with alcoholic relatives
1 in 8 witnessed their mother being beaten or hit
Frozen in Time
When a person is exposed to overwhelming stress, threat or injury, they develop a fixed and maladaptive memory that interferes with the capacity to respond flexibly and appropriately. When threatened or injured, all animals draw from a “library” of possible responses. We orient, dodge, duck, stiffen, brace, retract, fight, flee, freeze, collapse, etc. All of these coordinated responses are things that the body does to protect and defend itself. The bodies of traumatized people portray “snapshots” of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time.
Copyright Laurene Winkler, 2015