I considered titling this article “before you judge someone, read this”. It should be the effect once you’re done reading it, but what I’m about to share is so much more than a way to keep a bad habit in check.
I recently attended a 3 day conference as part of my Certified Trauma Integration Practitioner training through the Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing in Ontario, Canada. What I’m learning about how humans operate is blowing my mind – and heart, wide open! I have so much more compassion for myself and humanity.
Here is what I consider must-know information for all humans. Trauma affects everyone. If you are alive, you have trauma! By understanding what it is, how it affects the brain, and how it changes us, we will naturally embody greater compassion and kindness towards one another.
Types of trauma
There are two types of trauma; developmental (attachment), and traumatic events. Most of us think of trauma as significant events like war, abuse, violence, etc. However, attachment trauma is the most pervasive and prevalent. It feels like a lack of reliable warmth, care, love, and affection during childhood. It can be harder to heal because there isn’t one memorable event to work on. This is actually a huge deal because healthy attachment is the base for secure relationships throughout life. If a person had secure attachment in childhood and experienced a traumatic event later in life, recovery is much easier. There is even evidence to suggest that adult relationships can be predicted based on the child’s attachment at only 18 months of age!
Human beings are born primed for affection, attunement, and connection. These emotional needs are not luxuries – they are required to develop into healthy, happy human beings. This is because babies cannot self-regulate. If we do not receive warm, loving nurturing from our caregivers, we learn that relationships are unsafe, the world is hostile, and we are unworthy of love. Because these feelings are too enormous for babies and children to bear, we create all kinds of adaptations to function throughout life and avoid feeling this tremendous pain. In more extreme cases, they manifest as personality disorders and serious mental health issues.
Here are some of the effects of trauma
Trauma physically changes the brain, especially during our most vulnerable growth period from birth to 3 years of age. This makes it impossible for some people to carry out ‘normal’ tasks. It is not that they are lazy, unmotivated, or don’t care. They have had to use brain resources normally dedicated to healthy childhood functioning and growth for survival and safety instead. Until trauma is healed, the brain believes the past is the present and continues to recreate these patterns.
Those who have had insecure attachment and multiple highly traumatic events can have a very hard time maintaining steady employment, intimate relationships, and other responsibilities. Unfortunately, they are also much more likely to suffer from financial problems, health issues, and social isolation, which perpetuates the cycle of suffering, because their focus in on survival, not healing. We need more compassion and support, not judgment.
How trauma affects the brain
Trauma is in the right hemisphere of the brain, which manages sensory inputs. This is why a traumatized person is haunted by images, sounds, smells, etc. When someone is in trauma, the intense charge shuts down the pre-frontal cortex, or the higher brain in the left hemisphere. This part of the brain is responsible for speech and problem-solving. This means it’s NOT POSSIBLE to logically analyze your way through the situation when you are in trauma. Many of us are so hard on ourselves that we didn’t speak up or fight back in past traumatic situations. We need to understand that we COULDN’T speak at the time!
In one training example, we observed an adult female talking about how at 3 years old she heard her father attempting to strangle her mother. She could not open the door to their bedroom or speak up to stop it. Her 9 year old sister was able to call the police and stop the attack, but the client remained traumatized from internalized shame that she did not do more. Her treatment involved re-enacting opening the door, and working on her throat area to mobilize speech. When she stood up to open the door, she froze. The therapist pointed out that at age 3, she was too short to unlock the latch above the door handle, and that her shock shut down her speech abilities. She asked her to open the door as an adult, and boom! This is what trauma does. We forget that we have additional resources to deal with the situation now. She was able to see that it was not her fault and she could not have done it differently. She finally felt self-compassion instead of beating herself up.
If you observe people with ‘weird’ habits, what’s typically happening is they are still self-regulating in the ways they did as children. For example, a child who is continually neglected by his mother might chew on his sweater to soothe himself, because that’s what was available at the time. If he has not healed as an adult, this person might still rely on this behaviour to regulate his emotions. He is not aware that’s he’s still applying what was appropriate and helpful to a 3 year old now. This is how unhealed trauma keeps us stuck; the brain cannot distinguish the past from the present. This is what happens with PTSD. It feels like the past keeps happening in the present.
What does healing trauma mean?
Healing trauma is all about going into the body to FEEL what is happening, both on sensory and emotional levels. It is not healed by focussing on the story. You must understand what you and your body needed to have happen at the time, and provide that now. This completes the situation and releases the charge from your body. Healing trauma physically integrates the right and left hemispheres so that the whole brain works together properly. This tells the brain that the trauma was in the past and the threat is no longer present.
If any of this resonates with you, learn more about attachment and trauma, and consider seeking out a good therapist. Personally, I can’t wait to work with mine! There are numerous forms of therapy that are effective – everything from expressive arts, play, music, somatic (body-based), yoga, EFT, biofeedback, and models that combine several modalities together.
I also urge you to please keep this in mind – if you see someone in distress, they could be on the brink of going into trauma (because of triggers that have nothing to do with you). Responding with kindness, softness and attunement to what they need will help reduce their hyper-arousal. You really can make a difference.
Whether we are children or adults, love is what heals. We ALL have dysfunctional adaptations that we developed in order to deal with very big emotions of shame, powerlessness, and hopelessness. We all need to be kind to each other.