A number of the adult clients that I work with in my private practice experienced developmental trauma (meaning neglect and abuse) as children. Adults who experienced developmental trauma have different areas of the brain light up during brain scans than adults who were safe from neglect and abuse as children. These differences in brain scans are receiving attention today in the research community because they literally illustrate ways individuals who experienced developmental trauma were harmed.
Why do these differences between the two groups show up on a brain scan? If you lived in constant danger as a child and had to remain hypervigilant, scanning for danger to survive, it makes sense that your brain developed differently than the brain of a child who lived in safety. We don’t get away scot-free, meaning without penalty, if we had elevated levels of adrenaline coursing through our systems every day as children.
One of the big differences I witness with my clients who experienced developmental trauma is that the majority continue to have elevated levels of adrenaline coursing through their systems as adults. Every day.
What follows is part of the discussion I have with my clients. Let’s say that the maximum amount of adrenaline that a person can experience is a “10” on a scale of “0 to 10.” For people who grew up in safety, the amount of adrenaline in their bodies remains pretty darn close to zero day after day after day. For people who experienced developmental trauma, however, the baseline level of adrenaline in their bodies is more like a “5” or a “6” on a scale of “0 to 10,” hour after hour after hour, day after day after day.
Wow. A “5” or a “6”? Are they aware of this? Most of the time they are not. This is because a “5” or a “6” is their baseline level of adrenaline, and so to them it feels normal. Their baseline level of adrenaline is always elevated so it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary.
People who experienced developmental trauma, however, are aware when their adrenaline level spikes. And they are aware, when it spikes, that they have reached a “7” or an “8” or a “9” because that’s a lot of adrenaline to have in your body.
Let’s say that something happens to make your adrenaline level spike. Let’s make it a small stressor so you only go up two points on the “0 to 10” scale. Maybe your neighbour’s dog challenges your dog while you’re out for a walk. Maybe the person at the gas station counter is taking too long to help you. Maybe the person who answered when you called your cell phone company to ask about an extra charge on your bill isn’t being helpful. Maybe someone pulled into the parking spot that you were waiting for at the mall.
If you experienced safety as a child, then this minor event will “pop” you up two points on the “0 to 10” scale, and your adrenaline level will register as a “2.” Being at a “2,” your adrenaline level won’t be that high and you’ll be able to think rationally and to calmly think your way through the situation.
But if you experienced developmental trauma, then this minor event will pop you up two points on the “0 to 10” scale, and your adrenaline level will register as a “7” or an “8.” Being at a “7” or an “8,” your adrenaline level will be surging and you will react as though your life is in danger. Because you will believe that this is the case.
The person you are in conflict with will see that you have reached a “7” or an “8” on the “0 to 10” scale and will respond accordingly. Their own adrenaline level may spike to an “8” as well – especially if they experienced developmental trauma themselves.
If the person you are in conflict with experienced safety as a child, however, there’s a chance they will not “pop” along with you. Instead, they may see that you have reached a “7” or an “8” and will respond to your adrenaline level in some way. Chances are that the relationship you have with them will be seriously damaged.
This wouldn’t be so bad, expect that it happens routinely. It’s not unusual for people to tell me that they reach a “7” or an “8” on the “0 to 10” scale several times a day. Sometimes they experience an “8” once an hour.
When I ask my clients to start monitoring how often they reach a “7” or an “8,” they are usually able to do so. The lights start to come on for them. They say, “Wow… I go there all the time.” Once this happens, we are able to talk about the fact that an event they interrupt as being a “7” or an “8” would most likely be only a “2” for someone who grew up in safety.
This is exciting, because it means that people who experienced developmental trauma can learn to react to the same situation as being a “2,” as well.
I ask my clients, when they are at a “7” or an “8”, to ask themselves two questions. I ask them to ask themselves whether they are (1) in danger? or (2) in the process of dying? If the answer to both these questions is “No,” then I encourage them to start telling themselves that they are in a “2” situation.
These two simple questions allow my clients to start seeing situations they formerly saw as a “7” or an “8” as realistically just a “2.” This insight allows them to begin learning how to regulate their emotional responses. Being able to catch themselves at a “7” or an “8” is only the beginning, but it’s critical to learning how to self-regulate their emotional responses.
Once my clients can catch themselves at a “7” or an “8,” they are also able to observe that their operating baseline is a “5” or a “6.” And this is where the change process really begins to kick in.
If you experienced developmental trauma, and the content of this blog post describes how you react when you “pop,” it’s important to realize that the way you react is not your fault.
Once you realize that you react this way, however, it is your responsibility to get help so that you can address the problem. That’s where having a relationship with a psychologist who understands what’s going on, and how to help, comes in.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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