Verbal therapy addresses traumas through our memories, but how can we heal the wounds that occurred when we were too young to remember?
Sam, 20, knew that something within himself didn’t feel fully intact, but he could never quite put his finger on what it was. He had difficulty connecting socially, conversations seemed awkward, and he struggled to articulate what he was experiencing. Sam did not cry much as a baby, nor did he fuss when wet or hungry. He grew into a quirky kid with learning disabilities, sensory issues, and social challenges, visiting therapist to therapist trying to resolve his anxiety and lack of joy.
Eventually, sam was put on antidepressants, but he still felt disconnected from himself and the world around him. The anxiety did not decrease and the medication only made him more distant from himself. Sam was suffering from unresolved birth trauma, a type of developmental trauma that is often misdiagnosed. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his foot and experienced distress during the birthing process. It makes sense that sam would detach from his experiences. Why would anyone want to be in their body if their first experience in the world were stressful ones?
Developmental trauma that happens during birth affects 29 out of 1000 babies¹, and yet, we seldom acknowledge these birth experiences as “real” traumas.
Developmental trauma occurs from the time of conception until a child develops verbal skills around the age of two or three. Because of the preverbal nature of these traumas, they cannot consciously be recalled. However, these experiences flood the brain and body with stress hormones that impact future development, the nervous system, and how an individual navigates in the world. The more stress hormones a baby acquires, the more that child’s body will prepare for threats. Not only that, but it can create other issues ranging from allergies and asthma to learning challenges. Additionally, the mother’s psychological stress during and after the birth can impact her ability to attend to her baby, which is a crucial factor in normal child development.
Healing deep wounds
In talk therapy, a therapist guides the healing process by helping patients understand the root cause of their issues and behaviors. But how can that process work with wounds that occurred before we were able to put words to our experiences? Fortunately, body-based therapies, such as somatic experiencing can help the individual develop a sense of safety, competence, and mastery over themselves through developing a more embodied or “felt sense” of self. Developmental trauma robs us of this embodied self, causing us to feel misattuned with ourselves and the world.
The biology of healing
We usually think of trauma in terms of traumatic events, either acute (I.E.: a car accident, a hurricane) or chronic (I.E.: child abuse, poverty). As peter levine, ph.D., the founder of somatic experiencing (se); the body-based healing modality I practice, explains it, trauma is not about an event. It is actually the result of the energy that gets locked in our body when it experiences threats, both real and perceived. When trauma energy becomes trapped, the body’s mechanism for defense gets stuck in the “on” position. These mechanisms of defense include fight, flight, and freeze. In sam’s case, his body could not defend or protect itself when he was experiencing stress in the womb, so his body shut down and disconnected in order to survive. Sam was moving through life but often stuck in a frozen state.
Energy becomes trapped when we are unable to see a traumatic event through to completion. In other words, trauma occurs when we lose our sense of safety, and it is only resolved when the body is restored to a sense of peace and safeness. For example, if you find yourself in a situation in which you want to run for safety but for whatever reason are unable to, you can get locked into that “flight mode” until you somehow resolve that incident to completion later down the line.
This locking happens because when we are under threat, our body creates a massive amount of energy for the purposes of self-defense. When that energy is not discharged, our autonomic nervous system loses its capacity to restore equilibrium. It is important to understand that this energy does not dispel on its own accord over time. It will continue to live on within us until we address it by completing our self-protective responses.
Somatic experiencing (se) facilitates this completion by bringing the body into the process and discharging the energy that is stuck inside us through shaking, heat, and tears. When we have a sense of mastery over our bodies, we can then navigate the world with a greater sense of safety and security. That is, in a nutshell, the biology of healing.
Building a safe cocoon
Someone who has experienced developmental trauma may have never had—or, at least, may not remember— ever having felt a sense of safety in the world or within themselves. They don’t have that as a touchstone or barometer for how life could potentially feel. I notice that many of my clients who have developmental trauma are always waiting for something bad to happen.
Resolving this requires a process of moving that person toward a place where they can build a sense of safety within themselves. It is a layered process, and that process begins with building a new, stable foundation in their nervous system. That foundation generally begins by building a safe cocoon within the therapist-client relationship.
As a somatic therapist working with developmental trauma, my goal is to help clients develop a sense of safety within themselves and down-regulate the stress responses that are stuck “on” in their nervous systems. We do this through a “bottom-up” process of working with the client’s “lower function” brain: the brain stem in particular, wherein reside the survival instincts.
Here is an example of what building a safe place to deal with developmental trauma might look like. Katie, 19, is a client who is eating disordered and an overachiever. She has never felt safe in her body, evident by her inability to regulate her emotions from a very early age. She is what we would call a sensitive child who turned into an adult with anxiety.
When she first came to see me, she told me that she had been suffering from a two-day panic attack. Rather than asking her what triggered the panic attack (as a “top-down” or cognitive-based therapeutic approach would), I asked her, “what is happening for you right now?”
“I feel like I just want to get into the fetal position,” she replied. “great!” I replied. “let’s do that.”
I bunkered her in with pillows, creating a cocoon to contain her. She spent the next hour encased in those pillows in the fetal position as I sat next to her and gently put my hands on her feet. By the time she left the session, she was amazed that she was able to quiet her mind and felt far more grounded than she had when she first walked through the door. She learned that she could stay in her body in those moments of panic and it was going to be okay—better, even. This provided her with a new sense of mastery, a sense that she was capable of managing her anxious feelings and had the ability to move through them safely. This experience alone helped her feel more resilient to manage the anxiety the next time it showed up.
If this sounds simple, that’s because it was. All I did was to create a safe container for this young woman to move through an experience. However, it is important to note that she knew exactly what her body needed, whether she was aware of it before coming to my office or not. To help her, I had to ask her what her body needed and create a safe container for her to be with her experience.
We don’t need to know exactly what happened with katie to traumatize her or to trigger that trauma. The story doesn’t matter, because we are not working with it and would likely never be able to understand what that story is. That is not how this issue is going to be resolved. It is going to be resolved through her body and through her nervous system, which is at the root of these panic attacks. So, the extent of our talking was limited to that simple question and her answer to it: what is happening now, and what do you need?
Healing can happen
If you think that you or a loved one may have unresolved developmental trauma, here is a list of potential symptoms:
- Difficulty in forming and developing close relationships
- Inappropriate emotional responses to situations (over or under-reaction)
- Difficulty in setting healthy boundaries
- Self-destructive behavior
- Sensing danger, when danger is not present
- Difficulty setting goals
- Difficulty putting words to your experiences
- Excessive risk-taking
- Lack of empathy or feeling too much of other people’s feelings
- Unexplained aggression
- Feeling disconnected from your experiences
Treating unresolved developmental trauma
Unresolved developmental trauma can significantly impact our adult lives. These early imprints layered on top of additional stressors can compromise our ability to develop healthy relationships and navigate the world with a sense of joy and vitality.
The good news is that we all have the capacity to heal and live a life with ease and vitality. There are many well trained professionals and resources that can facilitate this process. To learn more information on how to heal deep wounds, visit www.Traumahealing.Org.
¹Birth Trauma. (2020, January 6). Retrieved March 12, 2020, From Https://Www.Birthinjuryguide.Org/Birth-Injury/Types/Birth-Trauma/
This Article Was Adapted From Moving Beyond Trauma: The Roadmap To Healing From Your Past And Living With Ease And Vitality (Lioncrest Publishing)