I get asked this question a lot by those who have survived difficult childhood experiences, including abuse and neglect.
I wish there were easy answers.
ATTACHMENT AND TRAUMA
In a recent Professional Development I attended on attachment, the trainer explained the powerful impact of our early relational experiences on brain development.
For her, the impactful period before birth and up to the age of three provide us with the structural underpinnings that last a lifetime.
They become the bedrock of our social and emotional functioning.
Although the brain remains plastic throughout life, there are certain pathways and strata that remain in place from this early period and which have an ongoing and profound influence on our wellbeing.
These are not things that can be easily changed, even through therapy.
As the trainer explained, this developmental sensitivity is designed to adapt us to our environment.
And sometimes this environment is not ideal.
Evolution has created us to be adaptive and to survive.
When our environment is stressful and our parent is not the soothing presence we need them to be, we learn that relationships are not places where our needs will be met. But more than this, we can learn that the universe is overwhelmingly hostile and frightening.
ATTACHMENT AND THE RIGHT BRAIN
Regulation theorist and clinician Allan Schore argues that the right brain is dominant in our early years, before language brings the left brain into dominance.
Outlining the importance of sensitive attunement during attachment, Schore describes the right brain to right brain communication that helps us learn to regulate and organise our consciousness. Rhythmic play, sounds, touch, smell and facial expression are all important to the growth of our early emotional capacities.
Ideally our parents down-regulate our negative emotions, share our joy and excitement and help us understand ourselves.
But when our parents are emotionally unavailable or suffering stress themselves, they won’t be there for us in the way that we need.
“SPLITTING” AND TRAUMA
Instead of the learning, exploration and play of healthy development, our environment can elicit trauma responses which influence important brain structures and adapt us to a hostile environment.
Sometimes, if the trauma is bad enough or happens for a long enough period, it will cause us to develop a split in our consciousness.
Trauma theorist Janina Fisher argues that this split results in a “Going along with life” self and a “traumatised child self” with little or no communication between the two.
As Fisher points out the natural fault lines of the brain (e.g. between the right and left brain) provide us with opportunities to split off from our traumatic experiences. These are needed for the young child to survive chronic trauma because the developing brain just isn’t equipped to deal with these experiences.
So our brains develop along a trajectory that is “survival focused” rather than play and exploration focused. This can lead to hypervigilance, increased startle response, problems with managing stress and the debilitating emotional flashbacks which can be triggered by events which remind us of the original trauma.
Emotional flashbacks are neither discrete or framed as “memories” in the ordinary sense of the word. They will normally be experienced by the trauma survivor as if they were actually happening. It can often feel like we disappear from reality as the traumatic memories are re-experienced in the flow of our consciousness.
We are usually helpless to stop or to reflect on these distressing experiences.
Psychotherapy For Early Trauma
We cannot go back and “rewire” the brain.
But we can grow our adult self.
We can develop compassion for the helpless child we once were.
We can also develop enough self-awareness to understand when and how we might be triggered.
The shame associated with accessing our authentic self and with our traumatic memories can be lessened, and with time, will cease to dominate our experience of self.
As we re-experience aspects of the trauma in a safe way with an empathetic and non-judgemental therapist, we can slowly resolve it so that it no longer dominates in the way that it has.
Our therapist can model containment and compassion for our traumatised child-self. They will also “hold” us as we gently come into and out of our dissociated traumatic experiences within the safety of the therapeutic space.
We can learn to regulate, self-soothe and temper our tendency to judge ourselves for our trauma symptoms.
As we come to understand and learn self-compassion, we can feel safer and less controlled by our trauma. The trauma will never completely disappear, but it will cease to dominate our lives. As we grow stronger, we can begin to focus on what really matters to us and eventually find our authentic pathway through life.