The Aftermath of a Traumatic Experience
Acute trauma, often known as shock trauma, is a sudden and severe psychological or physiological stress response to a traumatic incident. Acute trauma is a jolt across the nervous system caused by the impact of something shocking or scary. This kind of stressful occurrence triggers a trauma response because, in the moment, you cannot fathom the full significance of it. You probably already know this, but trauma resides in your body, not the terrible experiences themselves.
There is also usually a tidal rush of feeling, often too much for the person experiencing it or others around them to handle in the moment or immediately afterwards. As an example, you can be experiencing strong emotions like sadness, anger, or rage because of what has transpired. These natural but overwhelming feelings, along with the shock, can temporarily impair your ability to make sense of the situation and learn from it.
As a result of this chaos, your body can't reestablish its natural equilibrium. These feelings aren't gone, but they're hidden away or fragmented, and they're causing physical and mental distress until they're reintegrated. Exposure to traumatic events causes even more disorder in the body/mind system. As you progress through the exercises, you'll learn more, have greater insight, and, of course, be able to restore order to your bodily systems.
Effects of Childhood Trauma on Development
When your basic requirements (discussed at the beginning of this chapter) aren't addressed as a child, it might leave a lasting trauma that manifests as a horrible feeling both then and now. You may not have realized that the surroundings was to blame for its lack of response to you. All you know is that these events have left you feeling bad on the inside and that you blame yourself entirely. When bad things happen, you attribute them to your own fault. You develop a coping mechanism in response to these early experiences that ultimately restricts your true self but gives you confidence in your ability to endure. You may go through life believing something "terrible" about oneself that isn't true. Alternately, your body may feel uncomfortable to inhabit if it is led to believe that its systems are being threatened by the outside world. Alternatively, you may continue to view the world and other people through the distorted lens of your instinctual survival instincts and false ideas about the world and yourself. These are just a few examples of the kinds of false convictions that can form in a child and eventually guide their lives, often without their owners even realizing it. Your current life may be being sabotaged by your erroneous views, yet you may not even be aware of it.
Trace Origins of Trauma
When you experience developmental trauma, you may feel worthless and have low self-esteem. Since a young age, you've been able to powerfully associate these incorrect thoughts and feelings with signals about who you are. This "badness" and other erroneous beliefs become deeply ingrained, making it difficult for rational thought to totally displace emotional responses.
Therefore, developmental trauma is not just about what may have occurred to you, but also about what didn't happen for you: your basic needs weren't satisfied, your body and emotions weren't safe, and you weren't able to express yourself honestly to the world.
A lack of basic needs being met by your caretakers and environment may have caused you to feel anger, shame, or guilt, or perhaps to shut down entirely. When faced with danger, shutting down is a protective response in which one becomes less aware of and disengaged from one's surroundings. Immobility and bradycardia are common symptoms of severe sympathetic nervous system depression. 6 A blank expressionless stare is characteristic of the shutdown response in infants, children, and adults. They may have a lackluster level of muscle tone. Extreme fright amplifies the natural human response of wanting to shut down. Both developmental and acute traumas can trigger this reaction, which manifests when a person feels trapped by fear and has no way out.
When your basic needs as a child aren't satisfied, it can be terrifying and overwhelming, so it's natural to shut down and avoid feeling those emotions. The negative impacts on your physical and mental health unfortunately persist. Consequences include dysregulation of the neurological system, the accumulation of negative thoughts and sentiments about oneself and the environment, and persistent physical discomfort that may persist throughout one's life. Caregiver-patient communication errors occur when providers are inconsistent in their ability to recognize and meet their patients' needs. The left hemisphere's ability to cope with intense feelings is compromised as a result, and those affected may experience mental disintegration, emotional dysregulation, and a loss of body awareness. 8 If you had a childhood devoid of consistent closeness to others and nonverbal communication, your right hemisphere may atrophy and you may become left hemisphere dominant, 9 a coping mechanism that robs you of the full range of emotions, the sense of safety you feel in your body, and your ability to participate fully in life.
These tense early-life perceptions of relationships are stored in the right brain's unconscious, rather than the left. By using metaphor and visualization (as you will throughout this workbook) to tap into your physical and mental resources, you will activate your right brain and replace unhealthy encrypted perceptions with more realistic ones. It takes into account the person as a whole when treating trauma.
One's ability to manage and integrate their feelings and thoughts are impaired after experiencing trauma. With the ability to self-regulate, you can get enough sleep when you need it, recognize when you're tired, cope with stress in constructive ways, and bring your mind and body back into harmony. Rather than shutting down or avoiding negative emotions, people who are able to self-regulate do so by facing and working through them.
The good news is that your brain remains malleable throughout your life, and your body has a natural drive to repair any damage it may have sustained. The more you develop these skills, the more you can grow into the person you want to be, complete with a healthy body and expressive methods that make you feel good.