Insights into Childhood Trauma

The umbrella of trauma may be broader than many realize.  It’s not only about experiencing clear-cut physical or sexual abuse, neglect or other horrible events leaving you with a sense of helplessness; if as a child you experienced your environment as emotionally threatening at all (poor attachment with primary figures, coldness, distance, loneliness, scariness…) it may have been processed as “trauma” for you.

In a recent webinar series with Janina Fisher, PhD on the “Neurobiological Legacy of Trauma,” Dr. Fisher weaves together some of the most cutting edge research on the treatment of childhood trauma through the lens of attachment theory, sensorimotor psychotherapy, AEDP, mindfulness and parts work.

“What is ‘threatening’ depends upon our vulnerability.  Because children are so dependent on their caretakers for survival and safety, many experiences are traumatic for them that might not traumatize and adult.”               – Janina Fisher, PhD

Here are some informational nuggets for those who suspect their lives are negatively impacted by their early traumatic experiences, in layman’s terms:

  • What brings us all to therapy in the first place is that we are triggered in some way, whether it’s depression, anxiety, relational strife, rage or other dysregulation of the heart and mind.
  • Trauma survivors tend to have symptoms rather than memories.  They can offer very intelligent solutions to surviving adverse circumstances.  (Depression serving to help me hide…Irritability serving to push people away…)
  • The greater the threat, the more our reptilian brain activates (fight/flight/freeze) for survival and the less the memory encoding part of our brain is shut down making it unavailable to witness the experience.
  • Young children feeling unable to do anything about or fight against their traumatic situation will often resort to the parasympathetic response (freeze) which is a kind of collapse and submit.
  • Autonomic nervous system experiences are shaped by attachment experiences (security vs. lack of security with primary caregivers) of childhood.
  • A lack of attachment tends to decrease the window of tolerance (the ability to stay present and respond effectively to a wide range of experiences) in the traumatized child.
  • A wide window of tolerance in a child is gained by having parents who respond appropriately to their high (scared, angry…) or low activation (sick, scared…).  This restores the window of tolerance in the child in that moment.
  • If we have been exposed to a threatening world the nervous system adapts accordingly that we tend to have an “idle set high.”
  • For trauma survivors often times good feelings feel less safe.  Change for the better feels unsafe.  Being loved and respected feels unsafe because it invites a relaxing into vulnerability.
  • A challenging aspect of treating trauma is that the memories either elicit too much activation or a shut down.
  • Every trauma symptom represents a survival strategy that served them well at the time.
  • The goal is integration and a shift in meaning making around “who I am” as a result of the past.

“Trauma symptoms offer ingenious solutions to surviving adverse circumstances.” – Janina Fisher, PhD

If your traumatic experiences block you from emotional and/or relationship health, explore avenues for trauma resolution to learn skills for improved resilience, emotional regulation and other pathways towards peace and joy.