Reconsidering the Nature of Trauma

Bonnie Badenoch

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Leaving her mom at the door, four-year-old Mandy walks confidently into her preschool classroom and is immediately met by the screams of another child as his mother walks out the door. Her brow furrows, her stomach tenses, and her shoulders hunch forward a bit. Understandably, no one notices, and she jets out the door onto the playground. Joyously jumping into the swing, she pumps hard and heads for the sky. Her brainstem likes the rhythm and her nervous system begins to calm a bit. Slowing down, she glances over at the jungle gym and sees two boys who are her friends wrestling over who gets to go first. They are pretty high up on the apparatus and aren’t playing so much as fighting. No one gives in, and the shoving turns to shouting and then hitting. By the time the teacher is able to separate them and bring them back to earth, Mandy is wide-eyed and shaking inside. Again, no one notices, so she is left to manage her fear by herself.

As she walks back into her classroom, another friend offers to share her toy, and they wander off together as Mandy’s conscious mind forgets about the boys tussling while her body continues to hold the tension. At snack time, still enthusiastically talking with her friend, Mandy accidentally knocks over her cup of juice, and she feels her overwhelmed teacher’s frown and impatience flow into her small body as the teacher brusquely cleans it up while talking to another child who doesn’t want her apple. Mandy’s little chest caves in a bit; her eyes go down as she drops from joyous to quiet, enveloped in a small whirlpool of shame. Things are apparently peaceful for a while, until circle time arrives. She sees the boys who were fighting get close to each other again, both their faces frowning, and her heart speeds up. She looks around to see if the teacher is watching them, but she is helping another child put her things in her cubby. Nothing happens between the boys, but Mandy continues to watch them closely, just in case.

All of this happens during the first two hours of her day. She has explicitly seen and encoded all of these experiences, although they quickly go out of her conscious awareness as soon as a new encounter arrives. Meanwhile, she has also received many more implicit sensory streams, below conscious awareness but registered in her body—children laughing, crying, yelling; parents taking their leave and the felt sense of their departure appearing on the faces of the children; a teacher smiling, frowning, sighing; struggles for control of the toys; the fast pace of the classroom—and so much more. Multiply these two hours times three and we begin to get a sense of her six-hour day. When Mandy gets home and discovers that her anticipated play date has a cold, she dissolves into a tangle of grief and rage.

Without in any way diminishing or dishonoring the devastating traumas so many of us have experienced, is it possible to say that Mandy has had many small potentially traumatic experiences during her day? If we simply say she was distressed (past tense), we may lose the sense of the shards of these experiences that linger in her muscles, belly and heart brains, nervous system, and limbic system and, with repetition, gradually shape her implicit anticipation about the way the world works. It is possible that her powerful response to her unavailable friend arose from an overwhelmed nervous and emotional system that didn’t have the interpersonal support it needed to regulate, digest, and integrate the frightening and shaming experiences that accumulated during her day. Perhaps an equally important question is when her experience might become a trauma—when her whole body registered fear or shame, or when there was no one available to help her with it?

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These may not be questions we usually ask about the experience of everyday life. However, what we are learning from relational neuroscience, and particularly interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), may help us understand trauma (from the Greek trōma, meaning “wound” or “pierce”) through a broader lens. IPNB offers particular help here because it is the scientifically grounded, interdisciplinary study of how we influence each other’s neural landscape from moment to moment (Siegel, 2015). It focuses particularly on our essentially social nature, placing the individual brain in the context of relationships (Cozolino, 2014; Siegel, 2015), something that is essential for understanding the development and healing of trauma. IPNB also sees mental health as arising from increasingly optimal integration between our embodied and relational brain’s many systems—taking into account not only our internal resources but also the supports available moment to moment from the interpersonal environment (Cozolino, 2014; Siegel, 2015). The breadth of its vision invites us to spend years allowing this perspective to slowly become embodied within us so that we gradually begin to see and experience one another through a different lens. This potentially amounts to a profound change in how we attend to each other and, therefore, what we are able to support in one another’s development. In a very real way, each moment of our lives is potentially therapeutic as we seek to deepen our presence with each other. While what we will explore here certainly applies in the treatment room—whatever our mode of practice—the hope is that we will begin to notice that this deepening wisdom follows us everywhere.

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To understand how we might begin to see certain aspects of daily life as potentially traumatic for all of us, it will be helpful to gain a sense of how our embodied brains are shaped by our experiences and how they then color our continuously unfolding perceptions. First of all, neuroscience tells us that our brains are complex systems, and this means they have an inherent capacity for self-organization (among other qualities) (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 1997; Siegel, 2015). However, what we may next notice is that what is inherent in our neurobiology doesn’t come into manifestation except in relationship (Cozolino, 2014). The potential remains but is not activated until our developing brain interacts with the brain of another. We know from the experience of the Romanian orphanages that babies left mostly alone suffer the most devastating wounds at every level, from disorganization of all their systems to major deficits in cognition and relational capacity. On their own, their brains don’t move toward optimal organization of their neural circuitry. The arrival of another with an already organized brain is the necessary food for self-organization to be nourished to whatever extent it can within the relationship. Most prominently in the initial stages of life but also throughout life, co-organization may be a more accurate term for what is needed to enliven the inherent capacity of our brains to develop the most optimal neural connections they can in the moment.

Excerpted from The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships © 2017 by Bonnie Badenoch. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.

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