What is Trauma and Somatically Based Trauma Informed Psychotherapy?
Trauma is a threat to Bodily Integrity and Survival and/or to the sense of Self Development and Self Integrity. There is single incident trauma or multiple traumas that are events and experiences that overwhelm the system's capacity to respond and integrate. These experiences are threatening, terrifying, and unexpected. Developmental and/or Complex Trauma is not an event, but all the things that do and don't happen every day in your early life that get folded into your experience of Self and other and get wired into your attachment system. We learn to adapt to things even before we are conscious of what we are adapting to. We develop coping strategies and an adaptive organization inside our system that helps us respond to our early environment and to our caregivers.
When I started the focus of my Somatic Psychotherapy practice, I began treated adults who had experienced childhood trauma. However, after years of sitting with adults traumatized as children, I began to recognize that even if there were specific traumatic incidences, and for many there are not specific events, that all of those things happened in a context of your early family life. And what gets imprinted even more into our sense of Self, and Self in relationship, are the things that do and don't happen every day that are the fabric of what we live in that our whole system remembers and adapts to. This is what shapes our sense of Self and informs our core beliefs and expectations arounds needs, relationships, and so much more.
There are five survival response. You have probably heard of Flight, Flight and Freeze, but Submit and Attach are also survival responses. Yes! Attachment is a survival response. We have to attach to our caregiver when we are little in order to survive physically, but also to survive emotionally and to form our sense of Self. But what happens if the very person that is supposed to love and care for and protect us, is also the same person who harms us, doesn't soothe us, doesn't meet our basic needs, criticizes our body, our feelings and our expressions, or treats us like we don't matter? What happens if we need to attach for our very survival, but at the same time, we also need to defend and protect our selves (either physically or emotionally) from that very same attachment figure? What happens is that we end up having to split inside. We have to develop different parts that can do different things. We will adapt because we are designed for survival and in order to adapt, we will develop one part that can attach to the parent or caregiver when they are available, but we will also develop another part (or parts), that will also defend the Self against that person. This can be a bit complicated to understand, but if you have had this experience you might recognize it in some way. Maybe as a strong desire to be close, but also a mistrust or a belief or a sense that no one is trustworthy or can be counted one. It is like wiring below the surface, an encoded subterranean organization that responds automatically to the world and people around.
We call this adaptive splitting, structural dissociation of the personality. This is a fancy psychological word that means that we develop parts to help support us, protect us, and help us get as many our needs met as possible, in order to adapt to to our growing up environment and the attachment figures that we have. This adaptive response is vital and is what allows us to survive and protect our sense of Self integrity. However, later in our life, this splitting can create issues in our sense of Self and relationships. We can feel like we are stuck, have difficulty knowing what you need or want, struggle to make decisions at all or good decisions for yourself. You may feel more easily triggered or reactive in ways that feel out of proportion. You may have a sense of not feeling cohesive or whole or any other number of things.
This old organization was essential, but it may now be limiting and creating problems in your functioning and ability to be happy. Through a therapy that understands and recognizes the impact of early childhood experiences and the presence of parts, these patterns and parts can be understood now and new possibilities and resources can be developed that are aligned with the present, wise adult parts of Self that can make good choices for us and move towards a more a more whole Self and life stream. It is not a simple healing journey, but it is worth learning how to not just be caught in survival patterns and learning to live more fully.