Understand why you behave the way you do.
A significant number of the clients I work with as a psychologist experienced developmental trauma, which means neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and/or physical abuse as children.
In many cases, they were born into families where their parents did not adequately love, nurture, value, and/or protect them.
Sometimes their parents did the best they could but had been harmed themselves and were not adequately up to the task. For example, a parent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may not have been able to securely attach to their children.
Sometimes the parents of people that experienced developmental trauma were seriously mentally ill and harmed their children because they were ill. For example, an alcoholic parent may have neglected their children because they could not maintain sobriety. Or a severely depressed parent may have been absent because they couldn’t get out of bed, or were in an inpatient psychiatric hospital.
Please note: While I write about inadequate parenting as the cause of developmental trauma in this blog post, this is not always the case. Developmental trauma can also result from a number of additional causes, including discrimination, natural disasters, and human atrocities.
Good enough parenting is necessary.
The term good enough is used to describe whether the parenting you received was adequate or not. Parents do not have to be exceptional to raise healthy children, but they do have to be good enough.
Dr. Laura Brown, clinical psychologist and author, describes The Most Basic Contract, which is an unwritten contract that new parents enter into when they decide to raise a child. In this contract, they agree to be good enough parents to their child until the child reaches adulthood. They agree to love, value, protect, encourage, and nurture the child. This is where the bar has been set, by evolution, to ensure the survival of the species.
If you had good enough parents as a child, you learned how to self-regulate emotionally, which means to regulate your emotions on your own, independent of help from others, and how to remain in what is referred to as optimal arousal the majority of the time.
If you had good enough parents, you grew up knowing that the world is safe, that there is abundance, and that your needs will always be met. As a result, you are able to remain calm and to feel valued and loved.
Some people did not receive good enough parenting.
When you did not have good enough parents, which is often the case for people with developmental trauma histories, you learned, quite appropriately, that the world is not safe.
To help protect you when you were in danger as a child, your primitive brain, which is not under conscious control, learned to move you out of optimal arousal and into hyperarousal, which most people know as fight or flight, so that you could defend yourself from danger in your environment to the best of your ability. There are two additional states you may not be familiar with in hyperarousal. These are attachment cry, and freeze.
If hyperarousal did not work, your primitive brain also had the ability to move you into hypoarousal, which occurred when escape from danger was not possible. In these instances, your energy level drops very low, and you become quite still.
In hyperarousal, your primitive brain run the show.
In hyperarousal, your thinking brain goes off-line and your primitive brain runs the show. You experience an increased level of activation, also referred to as the level of energy in your system, as the result of an adrenaline rush.
In hyperarousal, your brain and body are hi-jacked, or triggered. Your system believes it is facing a predator, like a grizzly bear or cougar or dangerous human being. Your primitive brain believes that death is imminent.
You find yourself in one of four states in hyperarousal, and may rapidly cycle through all of them. These states are fight, flight, attachment cry or freeze.
Frequently being in a state of hyperarousal as a child helped you to survive, if you didn’t have good enough parents. It prepared you to high tail it out of there, for example, if your alcoholic dad was looking for you with his belt out.
Fight or flight.
In fight or flight, your arms and legs are poised, ready to fight or to run. Your blood stream floods with sugars and fatty acids to fuel your large muscles for action. The volume of blood pumping through your heart increases six-fold for the same reason.
Both fight and flight are readily understandable. We are ready to either fight or to run from the predator.
Attachment cry is a new concept for most people. In attachment cry, we turn to the nearest person and say, often wordlessly, “See me. Hear me. Save me.”
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If fighting the predator hasn’t worked, and running away isn’t a possibility, then maybe another person can come to our aid to rescue us.
To learn more about Attachment cry, read Attachment cry: When fight or flight have failed. Adult responses to childhood trauma.
What about freeze? Freeze is what we do if we have exhausted our available options using fight, flight and attachment cry.
Sometimes escape was not an option from the dangers in your childhood. Remember that children are small, and adults are very big.
When this was the case, your primitive brain dropped you into the freeze response. Freeze is exactly what you think it is. You can’t physically move, and you can’t think. You are literally frozen.
In hypoarousal, your primitive brain runs the show, too.
From freeze, your brain drops you into hypoarousal, where you enter the state of submit. Another term you may find for submit is feigned death.
In hypoarousal, the activation levels in your body drops quite low, and your thinking brain goes off-line. You body believes it is facing a predator and that death is imminent.
In submit, your arms and legs become slack and you don’t have the energy to hold up your head. Your energy level falls, and you slump into your chair. If submit becomes extreme, you can lose consciousness.
This is what happened, for example, when your abusive father was looking for you and your escape route was blocked. Your only option was to hide in the back of the closet and not make a sound. If you were found, you had to endure your father’s wrath.
Evolution has been kind. If there was no escape from danger, you don’t have to be present, either cognitively or emotionally, for what happens next.
Children with good enough parents remain in optimal arousal.
In contrast to children that experience developmental trauma, children that have good enough parents still experience fight, flight, attachment cry, freeze, and submit because they face dangers, too. But being thrown out of optimal arousal and into hyperarousal or hypoarousal does not occur with near the frequency or intensity that it does for children who live under constant, unremitting threat.
You survived your childhood.
As a child whose parents are not good enough, moving constantly between optimal arousal, hyperarousal and hypoarousal, but spending little time in optimal arousal, served you well because you survived.
Your constant hypervigilance helped you at times to evade the ever-present dangers in your environment, and at other times to endure what happened when you couldn’t escape.
Your over-learned, automatic responses that protected you as a child hinder you as an adult.
As an adult, your over-learned, automatic responses to move from optimal arousal to hyperarousal or hypoarousal when your body perceives danger no longer help you. Today, they hinder you.
These over-learned responses undermine your mental health. This is because you are no longer dependent on, and vulnerable to, your parents that were not good enough. You are no longer vulnerable to those that might harm you because you can leave a bad situation as an adult. Today, you can take care of yourself.
You no longer need to perceive the world as dangerous.
You no longer need to perceive the world as dangerous because it isn’t dangerous. For example, you no longer have a drunk mother storming through the house, threatening you. And if you do, you can get away from her. You can change houses or change jobs when someone abusive, like a spouse or a boss, appears in your life.
But here’s the problem. The primitive brains of adults that were harmed as children continue to flip them into hyperarousal or hypoarousal whenever they perceive a threat to be present. Fortunately, the brains automatic responses can be re-wired with the help of a good psychologist.
You experience trauma re-enactments.
If you are an adult who spends a lot of time in fight, flight, attachment cry, freeze or submit, your primitive brain reacts to protect you from danger without your having any conscious awareness that you are in a trauma re-enactment, rather than because you are in real danger.
What does this mean? To learn about trauma re-enactments, you can read Proceed cautiously: Trauma re-enactments in adult relationships.
When adults that experienced developmental trauma flip into hyperarousal, they can experience anger and even rage that is out of proportion to the situation because they are perceiving historical danger. When these adults flip into hypoarousal, they shut down, again disproportionately, even though the situation no longer warrants this response.
Until they can get the right kind of help, two-thirds of adults that experienced developmental trauma describe their go-to place as hyperarousal, while one-third of people say their go-to place is hypoarousal. Both groups can flip out of optimal arousal several times a day, without conscious awareness they are doing so, because their learned response, which was required to protect them, is so over-practiced from childhood.
You can unlearn these automatic responses.
The good news is that adults that experienced developmental trauma can learn to remain in optimal arousal in the same way that people who never experienced trauma do. They can learn, with the help of a knowledgeable and experienced psychologist, that the world is safe, and that they are safe now, too.
You can become calmer and happier.
These adults can learn to stop experiencing the responses that they needed as children. When this happens, their lives become calm, and they become happier.
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta