What is Trauma?
Trauma is a subjective experience of psychological distress. What may be highly traumatic for one person, might not be traumatic at all for another.
Trauma occurs when 1) our brain interprets something as a threat to our survival, 2) our nervous system becomes overwhelmed, and 3) we feel alone in that overwhelm. That last part is really important, especially when trying to understand trauma that occurs in childhood.
Resiliency in the Face of Trauma
Trauma occurs when we feel alone and unsupported during our moment(s) of fear. Conversely, one of the primary factors underlying resiliency in the face of traumatic experiences is having sufficient emotional support. Having support allows us to safely feel the difficult emotions we are experiencing—terror, rage, grief—instead of becoming overwhelmed by them.
When we have sufficient, stable, compassionate support, we get the message: This is horrible, but I will be OK. If we are faced with overwhelming feelings and we feel alone, the message our body receives is: This is horrible. I’m completely alone. I can’t handle this.
Understanding Childhood Trauma Requires Empathy
As a collective we think of trauma in very narrow terms—soldiers at war, rape, natural disasters. When most of us think of trauma we think of only the most extreme examples, and anything less overt isn’t considered “real” trauma. This is a huge oversight.
Understanding childhood trauma requires empathy. It requires the ability to put ourselves in a child’s shoes; to imagine being young again. The things the brain of a two year old finds overwhelming are going to be different than the brain of a 22 year old. Being left to fall sleep in a dark room may not seem like a big deal to a 22 year old, but to a two year old this may mean absolute terror and long lasting nervous system dysregulation.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
When we feel alone and overwhelmed, our brain helps us survive by compartmentalizing all of the feelings and memories attached to the traumatic experience. In order to keep going we try not to think about it and we walk away believing: I can’t look at that memory or feel those feelings. They are too scary, too painful, and they will overwhelm me. This is what we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD could be summed up as a phobia of memories and feelings associated with past experience(s). This phobia of the memories and feelings was formed when we felt completely alone in our overwhelm, and as a result, our brain coded that experience—and subsequently, anything related to the feelings and memories associated with it—as a threat to our survival.
Most of my clients have experienced what is called developmental trauma.
What is Developmental Trauma?
Developmental trauma is trauma that occurs in childhood while we are developing. Developmental trauma usually comes in the form of relational trauma—trauma that occurs in relationships. When we experience relational trauma in childhood we receive the message that relationships are unsafe. Most of my clients learned that they needed to abandon themselves and their own needs in order to not be abandoned by others. This chronic self-abandonment is a trauma response called the fawn response.
Most often, developmental trauma happens between child and caregiver. The caregiver might be overtly abusive—physically, mentally, emotionally—but just as commonly, the dynamics can be more covert, and even unintentional. An example of this would be role reversal or parentification. This occurs when the parental figures are emotionally immature, the roles get reversed, and the child ends up taking care of the adult’s emotional needs, instead of the other way around. Childhood trauma can take many forms.
What is Complex PTSD?
Developmental trauma is a form of complex trauma, and is a common cause of Complex PTSD. Complex trauma is trauma that occurs over long periods of time and is not associated with a singular event. Trauma that is associated with a singular, easy to pinpoint, event is often referred to as “shock trauma.”
As opposed to shock trauma, complex trauma is more complicated and takes longer to treat because it is caused by hundreds, if not thousands, of experiences that occurred over the span of many years.
Symptoms of Childhood Trauma
Most of us have had experiences, especially when we were young kids, where we felt overwhelmed, helpless, and alone; where we didn’t have the support necessary to process those painful feelings. These unprocessed, overwhelming experiences get stored in the body and show up as various “symptoms” of mental health diagnoses.
Relational trauma that begins in childhood is the number one thing underlying the symptoms my clients come to therapy to resolve. Anxiety, low self-worth, depression, codependency, people-pleasing. All of these struggles often stem from childhood trauma. What we think of as “symptoms” are actually brilliant coping strategies that our brains develop to help us survive chronic states of emotional overwhelm and assaults to our sense of self.
Healing Childhood Trauma Isn’t About Placing Blame
Many people who struggle with anxiety, low self-esteem, codependency, and people-pleasing hesitate to admit that they may have experienced trauma in childhood because: doesn’t that mean I’d be blaming my parents for the problems I’m having today? I love my parents, and I know they did the best they could with what they had.
Healing childhood trauma is not about placing blame; it’s about understanding intergenerational wounds and healing them so that they aren’t passed onto future generations. It’s not about judgment. We can love our parents and be grateful for all that they were able to give to us, while simultaneously being honest about the ways in which we were intentionally or unintentionally harmed. Both are often true.
Healing our childhood trauma is about stretching our capacity to tolerate complexity and paradox. To embrace a “both/and” approach: I can love my parents AND acknowledge the ways in which they’re actions hurt me; BOTH are true—my parents did the best they could, and some of the things they did hurt me.
Learning to hold paradox in this way leads to growth, maturation, and paves the way for healing on a deep level. If we live our lives denying our own experience for fear of hurting other people’s feelings, we not only do a massive disservice to ourselves, but we also run the risk of continuing to perpetuate cycles of intergenerational abuse.
Meet the Author
Would you like to heal your childhood wounds?
Maggie is a therapist based out of Lawrence, Kansas who specializes in therapy for highly sensitive adults, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for anxiety, therapy for childhood trauma, and grief and bereavement counseling.
Maggie is passionate about helping people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible; you don't have to suffer alone. Maggie offers online therapy throughout the state of Kansas.
Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation!
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