Healing from Developmental Trauma
Traumatic experiences are by their very definition frightening and overwhelming. Events such car accidents, natural disasters, or acts of violence, change our familiar orientation to the world. It is common to feel flooded with powerful emotions, sensations, or memories as we adapt to new and often unwanted reality. Sometimes we start to avoid places reminiscent of the trauma. Or we might have or have intrusive memories and feelings. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) refers to the presence of these symptoms well after the event is over.
There is another kind of post traumatic stress called Complex PTSD, also known as Developmental Trauma Disorder or Complex Trauma. When you experience childhood neglect or chronic abuse your primary orientation to the world is one of threat, fear, and survival. Untrustworthy parents or caregivers leave you untrusting or confused about what constitutes a loving relationship. Fear and lack of safety leaves you scanning your environment for potential threats. A neglected or abused child will rely upon built-in, biological protection mechanisms for survival to “tune out” the threat. Patterns of fear and dissociation inform the developing body and mind.
“Adults abused as children often report feeling helpless, hopeless, despair, deep loneliness, shame, unfairness, injustice, sweeping depression, and suicidal thoughts. Many continue to push the scary, yucky, painful, and confusing feelings far away by resorting to learned dissociative patterns. Even though you are safe now, it can feel overwhelming to acknowledge remnants of historical threats held in body, emotions, and mind. We heal early developmental trauma within a safe relationship that is respectful, predictable, consistent, non-defensive, and has clear boundaries. Gently we redefine our capacity for relationship with a trustworthy other. Slowly we rebuild faith in ourselves.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dissociation and Defenses
Children require consistency and regularity with caregivers so that they can develop clear expectations about themselves and the world. Such constancy provides the ground of safety and allows child to adapt to the inner changes that naturally occur during early development. When confronted with an unsafe and unpredictable environment, infants and children tune-out and turn-off to survive. Dissociation becomes a well maintained division between the part of the self involved in keeping up with daily tasks of living and those parts that are holding the emotions of fear, shame, or anger.
Dissociative symptoms can be relatively mild such as feeling foggy or fuzzy, having a hard time talking about experiences, feeling dizzy, and feeling tired. More intense symptoms include feeling “out of control,” having lapses of memory, or reports of “lost time.” In the most severe situations of Dissociative Identity Disorder, it is possible to develop multiple parts with distinct sub-personalities.
Complex PTSD and dissociation is maintained by defenses such as denial, repression, idealization, or minimization of the past. Or we use substances or maintain other addictive behaviors to avoid feeling the pain. Here are some examples:
- “Yeah, he was an abuser but it’s not a big deal.”
- “They were wonderful parents but they partied a lot and I was left to raise myself much of the time.”
- “It’s just too much to know what happened.”
- “Why feel when I can…eat, drink, smoke pot, take a valium, etc.”
Resolving Complex PTSD
Traumatic patterns tend to be relived and re-enacted. Even though they are painful; traumatic patterns are familiar; letting go can actually feel more overwhelming. It can feel safer not to trust people. It can feel easier not to change.
Relational psychotherapy with a clinician informed about developmental trauma can help. Recommended modalities include EMDR Therapy and Somatic Therapy (body-centered). Expert and author, Kathy Steele, MN, CS suggests that the healing of early developmental trauma must occur within a safe relationship that is respectful, predictable, consistent, non-defensive, and that has clear boundaries. The process of healing complex PTSD involves:
- Observing your patterns of dissociation.
- Accepting and loving yourself with all of your defenses.
- Compassionately recognizing the impact of dissociation on your life and relationships today.
- Recognizing that a traumatic event happened to you.
- Realizing that increased awareness brings increased choice.
- Increasing tolerance for rejection, loss, disappointment, shame, conflict, and uncertainty.
- Decreasing the reliance upon defenses that maintain dissociation from painful feelings.
- Recognizing that the frightening or dangerous events are over now.
- Distinguishing between the past and present more clearly.
- Reclaiming flexibility in your body and mind.
- Developing new, healthy expectations about relationships.
- Having a clear understanding of the impact of relational traumas experienced in childhood cultivates compassion.
Whether you are a client, a clinician, a caring friend, or partner having a clear understanding of the impact of childhood relational trauma cultivates compassion. Adults abused as children can feel helplessness, hopelessness, despair, deep loneliness, shame, unfairness, injustice, sweeping depression, and suicidal thoughts. Many continue to push the scary, yucky, painful, and confusing feelings far away by resorting to learned dissociative patterns.
Many people with a history of complex PTSD and dissociation have been misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and over-medicated. Unfortunately, well-meaning care-providers can assume that symptoms are the result of a weakness of character; a damaging consequence that “blames the victim” and interferes with healing.
Even though there may be safety now, it can still feel overwhelming to acknowledge remnants of historical threats held in body, emotions, and mind. Gently healing occurs in relationship with a trustworthy other. Slowly we rebuild faith in ourselves.
Want to learn more about healing complex PTSD?
This post offers an excerpt from my book, The Complex PTSD Workbook, now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out.
Learn more about healing PTSD:
- Resources for Trauma Recovery
- Resources for Trauma Recovery II
- EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology
- Resilience Informed Therapy
Train with Dr. Arielle Schwartz
- Supervision and EMDR Consultation
- Upcoming Presentations and Trainings
- Advanced EMDR Therapy Trainings with The Maiberger Institute
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook or sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all my posts.