In June 2015 I attended a conference on Developmental Trauma at Change Academy at Lake of the Ozarks (CALO), and wrote a three-part article that I later published on WordPress. This information bears repeating, and so I am sharing this on Auldern Academy’s blog. Many of the young women we work with have suffered trauma—either Big T (an event) or Little T (ongoing stress and trauma). Yet what does that mean to parents, or even to those who experience trauma? I hope this series of articles will be informative and helpful to the reader.
The following information was gleaned from researchers and practitioners in the field of trauma including Joseph Spinazzola, PhD from Justice Resource Institute, Steve Sawyer from New Visions Wilderness, and Rob Gent and Landon Kirk from CALO. The research includes brain mapping and longitudinal studies to study the effects of trauma and stress on neurological functions and emotional responses. My original goal in sharing this was to make this information accessible to parents, caregivers, and individuals. The content is the same as that originally published on WordPress in 2015, although I will add additional information as to how Auldern strives to address trauma within our milieu.
To simplify, the centers of the brain that regulate emotion developed first to protect human beings. We learned early on in human evolution to tune into danger and remain hypervigilant so that we could protect our lives and the lives of our fellow beings. This is accomplished through our parasympathetic network in the brain. When danger passes, we can access higher level thinking skills through the prefrontal cortex and pursue problem solving and creative activities.
What we know about trauma is that one gets stuck in hypervigilant mode. It is hard to access higher level thinking skills when one is frightened, hyper-alert to danger, or otherwise fighting for survival. Thus, “thinking” goes out the window. When some is in distress, people around them say things like “calm down” or “think about what you’re doing”—when in fact those are things that person cannot do in that moment. The person who is not suffering trauma but who is upset will, after a moment or two, calm down, because their body can and will respond quickly to self-regulation. Maybe without thinking that person begins breathing steadily, which is the most effective method by which to bring down one’s “internal danger” barometer. Some folks will start counting to ten. Some will sit down and slowly, calmly, regain their composure. A person in a trauma cycle, on the other hand, will not.
So what is trauma? Most people think of a traumatic event (Big T), such as a tornado whipping through one’s town and destroying homes, or a war, or an act of violence upon the self. These are legitimately “traumatic” events. Some find it harder than others to overcome such trauma. What is known is that the longer the individual suffers the situation, the harder it is to self-regulate because one remains in hypervigilant mode. Think of a soldier who repeatedly goes into battle, or a family member who suffers abuse at the hands of another family member. This type of trauma is characterized by re-experiencing the event(s), there is avoidance or numbing, and there is increased arousal. We often think of these individuals as the “walking wounded”. But that is not the only thing that defines trauma.
Developmental trauma is complex, and often involves an amalgam of problems over a longer span of time. It is also comorbid with other disorders. The more enduring the trauma, the more intense it is over the span of a lifetime. That is, developmental trauma impacts both immediate and long term outcomes. Even if an individual works through complex childhood trauma for the most part, it can come back to haunt that individual if they suffer additional trauma as an adult. It is our limbic system that encodes our emotions, processes information, and activates our senses for survival. If one becomes overwhelmed, things fragment and become confused. The more deeply entrenched the trauma memory, the harder it is to return to a state of self-regulation–that is, to “think” and respond appropriately.
For an individual with complex trauma, the most common signs or problems include affect dysregulation (can’t maintain an even keel emotionally), poor impulse control (act without thinking), negative self-image (I am not worthy), poor concentration, and increased aggression. This creates functional impairment and a view that the world is unsafe, others can’t be trusted, and also that they are unable to function as demanded (I can’t). Problems are usually more noticeable at home, because school or work is often more structured, predictable, and relationships with other often less emotionally loaded. There is often a feeling that “I can hide” at school or work. Of course, not all individuals with complex trauma do well in school or work, either.
It is important to recognize that these individuals are not always “victims” of severe abuse at home. In fact, research indicates that some children suffer from separation or absence rather than because of the presence of violence/abuse. [Think of children who live their early lives in orphanages in which they receive little to no human touch or affection.] This research is ongoing, but there is evidence to support the belief that relationships are paramount to the extent to which the trauma is increased or decreased over time. What is certain is that individuals with complex trauma develop maladaptive self-soothing, such as self-harm or drug abuse, and emotional regulation is increasingly disturbed over time. Thus, appropriate treatment as early as possible is imperative. And it must be grounded in trauma informed and trauma centered practices. All the talk therapy in the world will not help such an individual.
In Part 2, I will talk more about perception and the general approach to healing.