Theories of healing trauma. The common studies of recovery applied in various therapies. Here, I’ve described the “what” and “why” they are used.
Attachment theory is the study of relationships, primarily between child and parents/caretakers. Being mammals, we are hardwired to belong to our tribe, whether this be a genetic family or a socially made one. From our time as a fetus to our adult years, our relationship with our parents determines the nature of our biology: one of health and resilience or one of illness and stress.
If our childhood was one of enough love, safety, support, and nourishment, we grow to be confident, stable, healthy adults with good capacity to handle stress and relationships with people we spend time with. It’s called, “Secure Attachment.”
If our childhood was one of lack of love, safety, support, and nourishment, or leaned towards traumatic experiences like abuse, addictions, and parents with their own health problems, we grow to develop disruptions in our ability to handle everyday life experiences and relationships. These tend to show up as chronic pain, mental illness, and executive dysfunction (low ability to do productive and creative tasks.) These attachment challenges are called, “Insecure Attachment,” and has three main categories: Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant, and Disorganized.
Thanks for our bodies amazing ability of neuroplasticity, we can rewire ourselves towards secure attachment and transform our abilities from disruption to thriving.
Polyvagal theory discusses the branches of the autonomic nervous system and how they become dysregulated from trauma. The resilience of these branches indicates our ability to handle stress: sympathetic (fight/flight) response to threat, vagal parasympathetic (flow/rest) response to healthy social connection, and dorsal parasympathetic (freeze/shut down) response to overwhelming threat.
A rigid system stuck in fight/flight/freeze keeps us from enjoying life because we are in survival mode instead. Our bodies and minds find it challenging to let go of stressful experiences. A flexible system allows us to stay in a restful, flow state of connecting with life and others and using our flight/fight/freeze energy when needed with the ability to come back down to homeostasis easily after.
With proper tools and techniques, we can teach our nervous system to recalibrate, find resilience and flexibility once again.
“What is instead of what if.” – Danielle Rousseau
Most of our distress comes from fighting what is because we are locked in a state of what if. Our nervous system calms down when we are able to accept exactly what it happening in our body and our life. Radical acceptance is the practice of self-acceptance in all forms: good and bad.
Radical acceptance is practiced in many modalities. Dialectical Behaviour Theory is a main one. Another term for this is surrendering. We are not seeking approval, although important at times, we are seeking to be present and allow what is happening. Our bodies are messengers. They love to be heard. We practice radical acceptance so that our pain doesn’t turn into suffering and our calm gets to be heard too.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
ACES is a study developed by the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Permanente health care organization in 1995. It studied the effects of various childhood traumatic experiences and their link to adults ability to handle stress, to thrive, and to be healthy. People with high ACE scores have a higher probability for chronic illness, mental illness, substance abuse, and fall into socio-economic distress more easily.
The ACE test asks ten questions. The higher amount of “yes” answers means a higher probability of childhood traumatic experiences leading to adult functional problems. The pros of the study is the awareness of our personal history and its link to our current struggles. It’s a great first step into self discovery. The cons is that the quiz is limited. It includes what it often called, “Big T Trauma” and neglects to discuss “Little T Trauma.” Big T trauma are the more obvious affects of harm in our developing life such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and divorce. Little T trauma are the more subtle effects like pressure for good grades, secrets kept, and lack of emotional attunement. The test does not include social factors like racism and poverty.
ACES is included here as a good first step into discovering how our childhood experiences impact our adult struggles.
Mindfulness is a broad concept and has debates on what it is. Trauma informed mindfulness is another discussion all together.
What it is not:
- Emptying the mind of all thoughts
- Going to a place in the mind that is not connected to our body and environment
- Easy and always safe for trauma survivors
Mindfulness is the practice of flow. Allowing our minds, emotions, physical sensations, and senses to our environment move between tension and dissociation to rhythm and presence of life. It is our ability to from state to state and be with whatever comes up to our awareness.
It is very similar to radical acceptance except mindfulness is more active. RA is a practice of surrendering to what is. Mindfulness includes more attention in discerning where we want to be in our body and environment and what resistance is keeping us from it.
The goal of this practice is to bring us back to ourselves and our world without feeling needing to dissociate from it. This is not always safe for trauma survivors as we learned that our body and world are not safe. A careful approach is necessary to return to a state of mindfulness that is not triggering.