Today the word “trauma” is becoming much more widely used but few even in the medical field really understand it. So let’s talk about what it is. In the field of somatic psychotherapy there are a couple of different kinds of trauma that are defined, shock trauma and developmental trauma. Both are characterized by a sense of not feeling safe at a visceral level. This generally manifests as anxiety of all kinds, tension in the body, and somatic symptoms that may be miscategorized as things like “somatic symptom disorder” or a whole range of so-called auto-immune diseases. The key here is that trauma can be understood as anything that triggers a fight, flight or freeze response: anytime we resist or withdraw from our experience.
At an extreme level this can look like someone that has a nervous system still stuck in the war zone even though they’ve arrived safely back home. But on a more subtle level it can look like any time we can’t simply relax into the present moment or feel safe and secure in social situations. Yes, that’s basically everyone to some degree! Probably the only people without much trauma at all would be people like Ghandi or the Dalia Lama, seemingly stable in the most difficult of circumstances. Often in our culture we think we either “have” or “don’t have” something, but in the real world the experience of PTSD is a vast grey area of experience. Almost everyone is somewhere in the middle.
What I want to write about today is the origins of that more universal form of PTSD, the trauma we all carry that arises from gaps and misattunements in our early development. Humans are complex, so complex, unfathomably complex, and our upbringing requires many things to come into place in a “good enough” way, and inevitably there are misses. Normally we think of development largely from a cognitive perspective. This is the sole stated purpose of the educational system. While interpersonal development is implicit in early elementary school, rare is the school that takes any real time to teach healthy communication skills, explore conflicts in a safe way, teach emotional regulation or body awareness, among many other things. Rather, we are largely conditioned to believe that the only thing that matters is the ability to do incredible, abstract cognitive gymnastics - but this is just one important thing that makes us human.
We also need love, a feeling of visceral safety in our bodies, accurate reflection so we can know what we are feeling, help emotionally regulating, kinesthetic learning (how to move our bodies and balance), and sensory integration - learning to organize the fields of each one of our senses on a coherent way. We need to do this to be able to function in the world at all, and good-enough caregiving helps us to hardwire these skills and capacities from an early age. Like language we learn these things unconsciously and automatically, only noticing when what we’ve needed has gone missing.
The most important level of this development is a feeling of safety. Infants are completely defenseless. An infant needs to feel protected and know that they are loved. In old Eastern European orphanages where there was little direct contact as many as many as 50% of infants would die, even when they were physically nourished. Love is a matter of life and death. So when a child does not feel safe from emotional neglect or abuse, this leaves a deep imprint of unsafety on their psyche and nervous system which can be managed and adapted to in some ways, but will ultimately remain until it is finally addressed. Stephen Porges, Bessel Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine have researched this extensively and I would recommend anything written by them. It all comes down to a visceral feeling of safety in the body.
Tragically, developmental trauma is increasing exponentially in the modern world for several reasons, as Van Der Kolk’s research indicates. First, the collapse of the community, and now the family, is leaving many children with not enough caregiving from overburdened parents with little outside support. Second, our school system since the industrial revolution has focused primarily on cognitive development, leaving everything else to largely atrophy. Third, our culture in general disparages all things “subjective”, such as through invoking the image of the “emotional woman” to shame both women and men for being fleshy, feeling human beings. I call this whole cultural configuration the “genocide of subjectivity”, which I’ll write about at a later time. As a result of all this, from conception children are less and less supported emotionally so that they are left to adapt to an emotional world too scary and intense to manage alone.
How do we manage? Through dissociation which can show up in many ways. Pure dissociation would be completely losing contact to a part of ourselves, as if it didn’t exist at all. This would be called the “shadow” in classical therapy terms. Dissociation can also look like many of the “disorders” that psychiatrists have falsely claimed (and with no evidence) as genetic “diseases”, including generalized anxiety, depression, OCD, or ADHD. Avoiding our experience can develop into addiction to substances, but also to all the myriad socially acceptable addictions like screen usage, workaholism, and virtually anything on offer today in modern capitalism, primarily fueled by a desire to distract from real life. Finally it can also show up as body tension and somatic disorders like indigestion, muscle and joint pain, headaches, low energy, or the variety of multiplying physical diseases with no apparent cause. But these disorders and diseases are adaptive, keeping us in a holding pattern until we can find the right context for our early experiences to be properly organized into the stream of our lives.
Sadly we can dissociate from any experience that was not contained and organized into our early developing systems including even positive experiences like love. If the child’s innate desire to love their parents is constantly shut down through the indifference of neglect or the violence of abuse, they learn that it isn’t safe to love because it will hurt too much to not have it reciprocated or even be punished for it. In adulthood this may show up as a person who simply can’t feel love for other people. No matter how much they want it, they don’t know how to access that feeling. Fortunately, none of these wounds are irreversible, even the most profound of soul wounding like the loss of contact with one’s heart.
Given that developmental trauma is about gaps in our upbringing, healing is about facilitating the missing experiences of our development. The key here is that this is not a conceptual process! A return to the body in a safe environment is a visceral experience. While we may not know it, we come to therapy to learn to identify, regulate and integrate these split off early experiences into our adult lives and identities.
Whether classically understood shock trauma or developmental trauma, whether extreme or subtle, all forms of PTSD can be treated by slowly, gently, kindly and lovingly letting the person know that they are safe to feel again. The methods for treatment will depend on the age that the rupture in development occurred. For instance, if it was rage in adolescence for being emotionally misunderstood or being punished (like for example being homosexual in a homophobic household), the treatment would be to reflect, hold and validate that rage, integrating the cut off energy one small dose at a time. If the rupture was much earlier, like never feeling safe or attuned to by a caregiver, then touch work for trauma is essential. Pre-verbal infant nervous systems do not respond to rational argumentation! You calm an infant through loving touch, and you calm an undeveloped nervous system carried by an adult in the same way. Through mirror neurons and interpersonal resonance, this work lets the body know that it is safe to feel and even to be because someone is there to catch us when we let go.
When trauma clears, we no longer need all of our painful and unwieldly management techniques. The formerly rageful person no longer needs to project their pain outwards by blowing up at the world; the socially anxious person no longer needs to manage or avoid social situations; the person with generalized anxiety no longer has to worry or constantly stay busy. These people can finally relax a little bit.
If you take anything away from this essay, it would be to forget what you think you know about mental health “disorders” and consider it all from a developmental perspective. Regardless of the validity of genetic dispositions as an important factor (something that has been brought radically into question by the field of epigenetics in the last decade), treatment proceeds in the same way. The human being is an infinitely complex being and development is lifelong as we integrate language, thinking, movement, sensing, feeling, creativity, and emotional and nervous system regulation. In some ways we’ll be highly developed when we reach adulthood, while the development of some parts of us may have have atrophied with barriers in adolescence, infancy or even while we were in the womb. No matter what particular healing each individual requires, it is only on the ground of a reasonably organized system that we can then move into the fullest and most aligned expressions of ourselves in adulthood, realizing our creative gifts, infinite love for others, and internalizing the spiritual dimension of interbeing that is the deeper reality of our lives.
While some humans get a better upbringing than others, no childhood is perfect and everyone needs help integrating and developing into their full selves. Our parents have their stuff and they pass it on to us. Our culture - what I call “trauma culture” - has a lot to re-learn about what it means to be a human being. But going through a developmental trauma healing process is a veritable spiritual experience, because you re-enter your fleshy body, awaken your boundless heart, and automatically develop the capacity to help others in a world that needs your help now more than ever. This is the alchemy of turning the tragedy of suffering into a strength and a gift. On the contrary to this process being shameful, I see it transform people in ways that make a university education pale in comparison, in both breadth and depth of understanding what it means to be alive and what one’s place is in the world. The value of this process cannot be underestimated.