A significant number of people I have worked with have experienced developmental trauma (meaning neglect and abuse as children). In many cases they were born to a family where their parents did not adequately care for them. They experienced neglect and emotional abuse, and possibly physical abuse and sexual abuse.
People with trauma histories may have had parents with drug and alcohol problems, serious mental health disorders, or sometimes both. As a result, their parents failed to attach to them when they were born, and they, as children, had no one safe to attach to.
In a previous posting, titled Must I provide care to my unhealthy or aging parent when that parent abused me as a child, I wrote about “the most basic contract,” which is an unwritten contract that new parents enter into when a child is born. In this contract, they agree to be “good enough parents” until the child reaches adulthood. This is where the bar is set by evolution, to ensure the human species survives.
When we have “good enough parents” as infants and throughout our childhoods, we learn to regulate our emotions so that we remain in what is called “optimal arousal” most of the time. We grow up feeling confident that the world is safe, and that our needs will be met. We are happy,and feel valued and loved.
When we do not have good enough parents, which often happens to people with trauma backgrounds, we appropriately learn that the world is unsafe. To protect ourselves when we are in danger, our limbic system, which is the emotional control centre in the brain, activates our “fight, flight, or freeze” response. (In this context, the words “high freeze” and “freeze” are interchangable.)
When we are in fight, flight or high freeze, we are constantly looking over our shoulders to ensure we are safe, which repeated experience taught us will help us survive.
When we are in “hyperarousal,” we are prepared to “high-tail it out of there” by either fighting or fleeing. This is what happens when a child pelts out the back door when an abusive dad is looking for them, and dad has his belt out.
A second response, called “feigned death,” occurs when fight, flight or freeze are not options.
When we are in “hypoarousal,” our brain’s limbic system has directed us into the “freeze” response, in which our instincts tell us to hide to avoid conflict. This is what happens when the abusive dad is looking for the child again, but this time the child is hiding at the back of the closet, not making a sound.
Children with good enough parents will experience periods of fight, flight or freeze in their lifetimes, too. But these experiences do not occur with near the frequency or intensity as the child who lives under constant threat.
As children whose parents are not good enough, moving constantly between optimal arousal, hyperarousal and hypoarousal, and spending little time in optimal arousal where the world is safe, actually serves them well. The resulting hypervigilence helps keep them out of harm’s way to some extent.
As adults, however, their bodies’ over-practiced habit of moving between optimal arousal, hyperarousal and hypoarousal undermines the mental health of trauma survivors. These over-practiced habits remain active but are no longer adaptive. Instead, they handicap the survivors.
People with trauma backgrounds needed to experience hyperarousal and hypoarousal as children, when they were dependent on their parents and were so vulnerable. But as adults they are no longer dependent and vulnerable. They no longer need to perceive the world as dangerous because it isn’t. These adults no longer have a drunk father storming through the house, threatening them. As adults, they are free to choose where they live. And they are free to change houses and jobs if someone with the potential to be abusive shows up in their paths.
However, as adults their brains can continue to “flip” them into hyperarousal or hypoarousal whenever they perceive a threat to be present. During hyperarousal and hypoarousal, the thinking brain becomes difficult to access, which makes it difficult to formulate coherent thoughts. When a person with a trauma background is in hyperarousal they may experience anger or rage. When that same person is in hypoarousal, they may withdraw or shut down to avoid conflict.
This occurs because their bodies have over-learned the fight or flight response, and they habitually flip there without any conscious awareness that they are experiencing a “trauma re-enactment,” (see posting about trauma re-enactments titled Why do some adults who were abused as children allow themselves to be abused as adults?) rather than because they are in real danger.
As adults, victims of trauma histories can similarly flip into hypoarousal when they perceive threat. Two-thirds of people with trauma backgrounds describe their “go-to place” as hyperaroual, while one-third of people with trauma backgrounds say their go-to place is hypoarousal. They may visit these places several times a day without any conscious awareness they are doing so because the response is so well practiced.
Whether they go into hyperarousal or hypoarousal, people with trauma backgrounds can learn to identify they have left optimal arousal, where they perceive the world as safe, when they experience a “limbic hijack.” Stated briefly, limbic hijack occurs when the person’s limbic system, or primitive emotional control centre in the brain, shuts down the thinking part of the brain, and directs them into the fight, flight or freeze response.