The Heart of Trauma
For all of us, no matter how securely we are parented, at some moments our mothering people aren’t able to repair the inevitable ruptures. All parents have implicit blind spots that leave them unable to see us children for who we are and also impair their ability to read the experience that is written on our faces when they have hurt or scared us. Left in this fear or pain, our young embodied brains do not have the neural circuitry to sweep these experiences into the ongoing flow of our developing rains, so the felt sense of this interchange is tucked away in limbic-centric circuits in our right hemispheres and held in our muscles, belly and heart brains, nervous systems, and brainstems as well.
Our early history, in embodied implicit form, continually whispers the subjective truth that plays an important role in shaping how we perceive our lives, particularly in our relationships, to this day. Over time, the felt sense of these implicit memories may change to some degree, but it is the nature of implicit memories to go quickly and deeply into long-term storage and for these neural nets to require certain kinds of experiences to open and take in new information (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012). Change at this depth is not as simple as having supportive relationships now.
As this memory is held out of integration, it is also held out of the stream of time. The part of us who experience the pain or fear stops developing and continues in this disrupted state until the necessary conditions—usually a trustworthy, sustained interpersonal connection—arrive to provide the sanctuary for change. Until that time, the embodied memory can be touched and awakened by internal or external events so that we are physically and emotionally colored with the felt sense of the experience again as though no time has passed. We might say that any part of us that can be touched in this way is carrying a traumatized state. This possibility leads us to a fairly concrete definition of trauma:
Any experience of fear and/or pain that doesn’t have the support it needs to be digested and integrated into the flow of our developing brains.
This definition encourages us to look into the neural and interpersonal aspects of experience for an understanding of how we become traumatized rather than toward the nature of the experience itself or a list of symptoms. We might consider the embedding of trauma to be a rupture in the inherent process of neural integration of our ongoing experience, with healing arising through the initiation of an experience of repair so that the journey toward integration can follow its natural course.
If we are willing to consider this very broad and inclusive definition of trauma, we will find it can hold so much, from accumulation of many small unseen and uncomforted daily wounds that beings for many of us in childhood, to the experience of natural disasters, wars, poverty, and cultural distress, to the overt and covert extremes of suffering that happen mostly as a result of the intergenerational transmission of pain.
This perspective is in no way intended to diminish the experience of those of us who have suffered the most egregious harm, but instead to diminish the distance between those of us who are seen as wounded and those who are not. In truth, we are all suffering together in some way. As clinicians, a felt sense of this can often support deepening trust in the space between as our patients begin to rest in our acknowledgment of this common ground.
Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012) Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their root using memory reconsolidation. New York, NY: Routledge.
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. The following is from the chapter “Reconsidering the Nature of Trauma.”