The Practice of Healing Trauma: 10 Ideas to cultivate restoration
Express your feelings:
The expression of feelings is vital to fulfilling human connection and well-being. So many who struggle to communicate what they feel. Toxic stress in childhood often constrains positive experiences of expression. When we expressed feelings we were often met with constriction. Do you have support in communicating your feelings? The feeling of being understood by those you care about can have a profound impact on well-being.
2. Nurture / cultivate desire:
Toxic levels of stress constrain self-exploration. Freedom to creatively explore life is vital to the discovery of a healthy identity. Unfortunately, we currently have a cultural structure that constrains this experience. A family and culture overly focused on achievement vs. health development can make us highly sensitive to the goodwill and approval of others, rather than attuned to supporting our internal sense of desire, creativity, joy, and reward. Notice what your emotional experience is as you think about and pursue pleasure and joy. Does your nervous system have the capacity to support the experience?
3. Expand awareness of autonomic sensory response to a stimulus:
Toxic childhood stress disrupts sensory awareness. If children experience high levels of stress they normalize a high arousal state of being. This can lead to a persistent physiologic state of high vigilance. This highly vigilant results in high sensitivity to external factors to determine our own sense of safety and self (meaning we don’t have an internal sense of safety). By increasing awareness of autonomic sensory patterns, we can identify and differentiate between the unwanted pattern, and cultivate an awareness of safety. Identify the experiences that influenced high arousal? When did you get relief and safety from this? How did you cope?
4. Expand compassion for yourself
Toxic stress affects executive functioning when we struggle with organization and coherence secondary adversity often occurs. For example persistent relational conflict, that usually leaves you feeling responsible. This is a toxic shame! This equation goes something like this: Toxic Stress + Isolation = Shame. The intolerable emotion of shame influences negative patterns associated with dysregulation. Overall the experience constrains self-compassion which is vital for nervous system regulation.
5. Survival Patterns and False Self
Autonomic regulation and safety create the basis for a connection to self. When we are connected to self the essence of who we are can emerge. (Some call it authenticity or the authentic nature of us / childlike expression of self). Survival and/or adaptation strategies to survive developed to seek safety constrict our connection to the essence of self. As a result, we develop and attached to survival strategies (FALSE SELF).
Polarized Thinking- Perceives stimulus in an extreme way. Black and white thinking, absolutizing leads to hopelessness,
Catastrophizing - Your early development was seen as a burden on those around you. Parents fretted, worried, and hypnotized you with their endless stream of anxious reminders. You failed to experience consistent security by your caretakers and didn’t the experience of “I trust you to make a great life for yourself!”
Universalizing - High sensory dysregulation when people “ask of you” obligations to be somewhere and/or meet a task. The type of trauma experienced maybe unprocessed grief and/or survivor remorse. The feeling like you should have done more to avoid the trauma experienced. Also, if you had a parent or caretaker who wasn’t dependable, frequently left you heartbroken you may experience dysregulation from the idea that you are responsible. We internalize trauma and project it into the world. This unmanageable regulatory pattern feels like all eyes are on you. You overcompensate and have a sensory experience of extreme dysregulation and ruminating thoughts.
Mind-reading - If you heard messages that you were supposed to like and love by everyone, or if expressing unpleasant feelings caused so much high arousal and dysregulation to those connected to you, sometimes kids hold back expressing feelings as a means of avoiding perceived danger from the dysregulation experienced by those around their social environment. As a result negative thoughts and feelings are kept in, however, those feelings don’t just go away. They are often projected toward others and/or experiences. Was it safe to express and explore your feelings?
6. Practice Compassion and Cultivate Care
From birth, we are hardwired to connect with caregivers. We come out of the womb seeking close connection. Soon after birth, we begin storing how our needs are met by our caregivers. These important interactions are stored in the limbic region of our brain. The response we receive from our caregivers establishes the primary structure of how our amygdala (threat response region of the brain) responds to threat, and we develop anticipation of the trustworthiness or mistrust of relationships. If we experienced a high frequency of stress without calming reassurance from our caregivers, constriction in rest, restore, digestion occurs and we blame ourselves for what is causing the stress. If the brain can’t resolve the problem the emotional system experiences arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and the acceleration of the parasympathetic nervous system at the same time. It’s like having the gas and the break on at the same time. Without relief, we internalize the emotion and blame ourselves. Kids don’t have the capacity to realize that their parents or teachers often don’t know or have the skills to help meet kids' emotional needs. This internalization is fuel for shame. If we go for a prolonged period of time without calm reassurance from our caregivers our parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t calm down and consequently, we remain highly aroused and then if we can’t fight or flight we freeze, and the parasympathetic system does provide the relief it's designed to provide. We call this toxic shame, and our ability to self-soothe through compassionate healthy experiences is replaced with compulsive patterns such as food, masturbation, pills, drugs, etc…
Toxic shame experienced in childhood impacts the hippocampus (brain responsible for consolidating memory). Our hippocampus consolidate how we should respond to situations where we feel uncomfortable or uncertain. If we were mistreated, our hippocampus internalize negative messages about ourselves and what we can expect from others. The effect is that later in life when we encounter uncomfortable situations our hippocampus takes over and we feel shame. This triggered response sends us spiraling into a complicated dance of arousal and fear that adversely affects how we form new relationships with others.
Where in life do you struggle to set limits? When there is a scarcity of attunement over a long period of time during development we experience scarcity and deprivation. If we cannot find the words to alert our caretakers of this distress we self-blame/shame for the social problems experienced. If you were deprived of safety and attunement you may have felt deprivation or a persistent autonomic sense of high regulation without relief, the compassion necessary to set a limit may have been constrained.
7. Connect to your Trauma
Try to understand how your developmental experiences are influencing your current unwanted behavior. Undifferentiated sensory patterns vs. a differentiated sense of self is the path to building capacity. If we can identify mistakes and autonomic patterns that were essential for survival during our developmental years we can seek to modify and alter our response. The autonomic patterns may not change but our response and experiences can. The brain’s development is experience-dependent, but we must recognize the implicit autonomic pattern we seek to alter first. Seek understanding and resolution. Undifferentiated sensory-motor experiences are just underdeveloped parts of self that need our attention and care. Practice the serenity, compassion, and care to allow your system to attune to these aspects of self.
8. Take responsibility
Cultivate a healthy sense of shame and understand patterns connected to toxic shame. Healthy shame allows you to make mistakes, which are integral to development. Permission to make mistakes allows you to connect to desire and fulfillment and open the door to repairing constraints to development. If you function in a rigid or disorganized manner this will constrain mobility, creativity, and exploration. You may fail to seek guidance and constrain opportunities for growth, intimacy, and connection.
9. Structure your Support so you can sustain it
Develop a structure that facilitates continued growth, self-awareness, personal growth, feedback, supports desire, and intimate connections. Survival strategies will always kick in, especially as we grow and expand capacity. So develop some structural guidelines that ensure you must remain committed to personal growth.
10. Expand your capacity by resolving conflict
Establish a strategy and rules for resolving conflict. By cultivating sensory awareness, and expression of feelings we can put this into action by working to resolve the conflict associated with dysregulation. This may mean we need to exercise grace for ourselves and others for mistakes. What problems are you struggling to resolve, and what part can you identify as a change you need to make.