The Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute reports that 70% of Americans have experienced something traumatic in our lives (meaning we had an experience where our emotional coping skills could not keep up with our reality) and up to 20% of us go on to develop some kind of stress adaptation (like PTSD) that affects our ability to live with a sense of agency and freedom.
Much of our trauma and stress arises in relationships. Trauma and stress resulting from relationships are a byproduct of not having power in a relationship – someone else has “power over” us. This can occur because:
- someone bigger and stronger than us was using power over us in a way that took away our choice, or
- an overculture/dominant culture is not seeing us or hearing us and subsequently not taking care of us.
As a result of trauma – especially the kind of ongoing trauma called developmental or toxic trauma (happening in childhood) – we develop in particular ways. We learn to survive through very clever adaptations to our environment in a way that minimizes the likelihood of threat. Some of these ways of adapting involve us:
- using our power to get out of the situation – fight, flight, appease, or
- minimizing either our risk or the way our body registers the reality of our situation – freeze, faint, dissociate.
We don’t choose trauma adaptations
All of these responses are designed to help us survive and none of them are cognitively chosen – our brain can’t waste time weighing up a response when faced with a threat, so our system automatically reacts with one of these survival mechanisms. Once our amygdala signals danger, a well-established ritual is underway. Depending on our story and genetics, our body might activate (fight, flight, appease) or it might shut-down (freeze, faint, dissociate).
Long term effects of trauma adaptation
Honing these adaptive responses because of ongoing trauma and stress comes at a cost to our system. We might carry these responses well into the future, past the point in time when we needed them to survive a threat. Our system is wired to survive, and so it totally makes sense that we’ll maintain a particular stress response into the future as a way to provide insurance against being taken by surprise. Ways of carrying trauma and stress adaptations into our adulthood might mean:
- we are hypervigilant to danger,
- we avoid intimacy in relationships,
- we have trouble being with strong or difficult emotions, or
- we recruit excess and distraction as a way to provide scaffolding to support us (eating, drinking, reading, working, etc) because it’s too painful to be with emotions.
These responses help us to feel more of a balance in the power dynamic:
- if I can control my body weight, I have power over my body;
- if I drink to the point of being drunk, I have power over my emotions;
- if I avoid intimacy I have power over my relationships.
Trauma and stress adaptations are all about regaining power, whether they are the in-the-moment response or the long-term response.
Shame and trauma adaptations
Society and the medical model of symptomalogy have lead to some people feeling stigma and shame around these adaptations:
- If I pull my hair out as a way to feel some control and a sense of calming ritual, it’s seen as a disturbing symptom of my ill health in the eyes of many.
- If I eat more than I need to fuel my body as a way to get control over emotions, I might be seen as having no willpower or as being greedy.
- If I seek relationships that mimic my abusive childhood because I know what my role is in those relationships I might be seen as foolish.
Our modern culture can tend to move toward the “why on earth would you do that?” of our behavior, as well as the “build a bridge and get over” it approach.
A model of acceptance
A much healthier and compassionate way to view and support ourselves through stress and trauma responses starts with understanding our body’s threat response system and the origins of our stress. Our trauma is not our fault. Our stress is not our fault. Our stress response is not our fault. Removing the stigma and shame of our trauma/stress response, and starting to tend to ourselves kindly are the first steps in healing and growth.
Ways to bring more compassion to our experience is to invite:
- “What happened to me?” rather than “What’s wrong with me?”
- “How did this affect me?” rather than “Why is my behavior so unhealthy?”
- “How did my system keep me safe?” rather than “Why am I so sensitive/impulsive/greedy, etc”
- “What does this mean for my story?” rather than “I don’t like who I am”
- “What gems do I find in the wound?” rather than “I’m broken”
A trauma-informed therapist who resonates for us is a great resource in healing from old wounds. Learning about the stress response also helps us to know that there’s nothing wrong with us, so reading and studying the human condition is another great way to find power in our relationship with ourself.
The Somatic Self-Compassion program specifically explores ways we can support our body as we move through our healing journey. While it’s not a therapy group, it offers a wealth of resources to help us understand this dear, sweet, old body of ours. I’d love to see you there.