Relational trauma (ie. chronic repeated trauma with significant figures in your emotional life – parents usually – as opposed to one-off traumatic events) changes the child’s brain in many ways:
it is a profound disconnect from yourself
a disordered relationship to the present moment
it shapes your view of yourself as someone deficient/ flawed / bad/ shameful*. And any bad events as your fault.a disconnect from others – our beliefs shape the world. For example, if I believe the world is a dangerous place I will have a very different life situation than if I believe the world is a place of potential and possibility, connections and challenges i.e. a realistic view.
it changes our template for relationships with others. In long-term relationships we are drawn to the energy where we first looked for love. i.e. where you didn’t get it in the first place. this can be disastrous as we re-enact our childhood difficulties over and over.
*we think shame is to do with having done bad things; it is not. Shame predates the child’s capacity to anything good or bad; it is to do with disconnect from the parent that the child (being a magical thinker/narcissist) thinks is its own fault. You can shame a 9 month old who has no concept of doing anything wrong at all, simply by the parent breaking eye gaze with them!
People who come to see me with this sort of disconnect often have problems with social anxiety and specifically with meeting eye gaze comfortably. They have always felt this, but usually make themselves overcome it and appear normal or avoid situations where it is necessary. But it is easily detected by a practitioner especially where they are recalling something painful.
Of course this is related to the time at which their first experience of trauma occurred. Not all children have this issue so early on and their problems may be more one of body image, feelings of inadequacy, etc. The particular manifestation of trauma depends on the developmental period that it first appeared. Shame is an early experience but it is seldom couched in these overt terms as the child has no recognition of that label – they only recognise a feeling of internal wrongness, or unacceptability. Shame of this sort is an invidious ghost of early childhood disconnect as the person will experience it but blame themselves. This then furthers their feelings of disconnect as now they feel bad for the way they feel.
When we grow up and first form relationships these internal templates are what we are drawn to; unconsciously we look for love in familiar places where we first sought it and didn’t get what we needed in the first place. So it is highly predictable that we will often re-enact similar scenarios in our lives over and over as this is the template we are familiar with and therefore that makes us feel safe. For some people this becomes dysfunctional as we look for love in all the wrong places because even threat or anxiety feels familiar by now.
Trauma and Memory
Trauma also affects our experience of memory – I’ve talked about this before but there are two major categories of memory: explicit memory (narrative recall) and implicit memory (body memory or felt sensation – a form of procedural memory). They are organised in different parts of the brain; the former in the hippocampus and the latter in the deeper parts of the limbic system. Stress changes how memories are laid down or consolidated – with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol the hippocampus goes offline and memories are more likely laid down implicitly to be stored as body sensation. This is the nature of traumatic memory, we don’t have words to describe it , we can’t recall it as a narrative, we may not be aware of it at all but we feel it nonetheless.
How then do we deal with this? We highlight the internal sensation, ask the person to pay attention to it (however it manifests – sometimes it is dissociated into a pain in the arms, legs, a tingly feelings, etc) and to use a psychosensory or other technique (I use tapping or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing or EMDR) to allow it to resolve itself as over and in the past. By asking the person to focus on the feeling the same brain circuits that lit up at the time of the memory being laid down are once again stimulated but they are actively re-diverted into new pathways as we allow a new awareness and logic to come into being. This is called reconsolidation. It is miraculous when it works, but sometimes there are layers and layers of these feelings which have to be dealt with over time as they come up in the present situation. When you have knocked enough of these away the whole edifice of constructed self falls away to reveal the true you, that is full of possibility and wonder.
Incidentally, the energy released from not repressing these memories is also sometimes released at the same time and this can express itself as renewed energy (sometimes physically as shaking) but usually as a recovery from longterm illness.