Traumatic experiences are:
- Invoke intense negative effect on the victim emotionally and/or physically;
- Involve some degree of loss of control and/or vulnerability.
The experience of trauma is subjective and depends on the age and resources of the victim. So while a person surrounded by family, community, church support who has not suffered previous traumas may be able to navigate the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the person next door who suffered trauma as a child, is not connected to community, may feel overwhelmed, victimized, and unable to recover their sense of control and strength without professional help.
Trauma can be multilayered.
Trauma often includes overt harm as in the case of physical or sexual abuses. Especially in young children, it also can include a deep lack of attention and need fulfillment as in cases of neglect. Clinically, we know that the damage to normal brain development is more severe in cases of neglect than direct physical or sexual abuse. It is often confusing to the adult who was neglected as a child to find themselves suffering the symptoms of PTSD even though they don’t have a history of being assaulted physically or sexually.
Trauma impacts us on the interpersonal level when there is a betrayal of caregiving expectation as in Mom knew I was being hit, and didn’t intervene to help. It is also traumatic to a child when the caregiver becomes unavailable to her through leaving the home, severe physical or mental illness, or death. Whereas an adult mind can understand the reasons for abandonment, the child who rightfully has caregiving expectation of the parent, suffers, sometimes for decades.
There are specific brain development periods, such as ages 2-5, preadolescence, and adolescence when necessary links are being created. When there is trauma in these age groups, those links develop less densely, and the victim’s ability to move from fight/flight survival mode, emotional regulation skills, and ability to pause and consider behavioral outcomes are seriously compromised. Many developmental tasks suffer and the surviving adult is left playing the game of life with a short deck.
Because trauma is multilayered, the outcomes for surviving adults can be very complex and elusive to the survivor. It is understandable that nightmares and flashbacks are clearly a result of their trauma, but other difficulties in life have not been connected to their history.
Many survivors hold an expectation of harm from the world in general and from other people specifically. So, even though you may be in a relationship with a wonderful man who is kind in every way, you keep the suspicion that he is cheating on you, and you think it is your intuition keeping you safe. It’s more likely a strategy toward safety that you embraced at the time of your trauma (even if it was when you were two and couldn’t talk yet). You know from your early environment that you shouldn’t trust others, even a caregiver who might strike you or leave you. That strategy was your hero, and probably accounts for your being alive today. However, it hinders your ability to create strong relationships.
Similarly, if the early response to assault was to submit, your adult sense of boundaries is distorted, and you may find yourself in repeated disrespectful or even abusive relationships, believing that this is just the way life is. You might hold an unconscious expectation of disrespect, and are attracted to partners that feel “comfortable” but ultimately are disrespectful and hurtful for you.
Newborns expect that they are the absolute center of their universe. When that universe turns on them, they logically assume it is because they have done something wrong/bad to create the painful outcomes they suffer. They try desperately to get Mom, who is comatose with severe mental illness, to see them, to care for them. They conclude often that they are bad people, that Mom locks them out of her room because they are ugly, unlovable, stupid, (fill in the blank yourself…). They then carry this theory about themselves into their adulthood and continue to find evidence that they are in fact ugly, unlovable, etc. The journey in therapy is to recognize and describe those theories as what they really are – just theories and assumptions, and travel the road toward new theories.
I talked before about developmental challenges that result from trauma at specific ages. In addition to anger management and emotional regulation mentioned above, sufferers also may have difficulty problem-solving. When they are frightened by something that reminds their body, their emotions, or their awareness of threat, the ability to rationally find solutions evades them, even in situations that don’t seem to merit that kind of fear. This can include finding their classroom, finding their homework or locker, paying attention to the boss, presenting project results to a team, or any number of thinking tasks that students and adults perform daily. I’ve had a client that wasn’t capable of grocery shopping at the beginning of healing. Being in a place with bright lights, noise, strangers put her in an overwhelming place that made decisions about which brand, which cut of meat, which banana to get just couldn’t happen for her.
Finally, a common outcome of complex trauma is a reduction in the capacity to act. That may look like being stuck in a difficult and unrewarding job, but unable to find the idea or vision of something better. It can also be as intense as finding yourself in an abusive, even violent relationship, but unable and fearful of escaping. For many survivors, the most difficult word in their vocabulary is “no”. An old definition of stress was “when every fiber of your being is screaming NO to a request while your mouth is saying ‘YES’.” Exerting power on your own behalf by saying no, this is what I want, or saying yes to what is really right for you is possible as you succeed on your healing journey.
These are difficult challenges, but you can heal in your own time and your own way.