WE CAN’T THINK OR LOGIC OUR WAY OUT OF THE EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.
Hi Love! I'm Morgan and I'm a childhood trauma survivor, certified trauma-informed coach, and the creator of Rising Warrior Collective, a safe community for survivors of childhood trauma to begin healing. If you're ready to take your healing to the next level, let's connect and talk about what it looks like to work 1:1.
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Did you know that our conscious mind processes about 40 things per second? This is nothing compared to our unconscious mind, which processes around 20,000 things in a single second. So what’s the difference between the two?
Our conscious mind contains all the thoughts, feelings, and memories that we’re aware of. This is the area of our mental processing that we can rationally think and talk about, including our memory, which is not always a part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily and brought into our awareness. Whereas the unconscious mind is a holding tank of feelings, urges, thoughts, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. Most of these being unpleasant and unacceptable such as feelings of pain, conflict, overwhelm, and anxiety.
One only needs to think about the physical sensations associated with deep grief, betrayal, exclusion, loneliness, or broken heartedness. This is what often gives rise to coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, disordered eating, self-harm, and co-dependency: we desperately want to rid ourselves of the intense physical agony that emotions bring. ~ Stephen Porges Ph.D.
I share this because it’s extremely important that, as trauma survivors, we understand how our thoughts work, especially because we spend most of our time in our heads trying to “logically think” our way through challenges, triggers, and trauma cycles. In gaining a better understanding of how we are currently operating, we can connect the dots and understand why our old patterns are not working. This awareness is the first step in shifting towards more balance between the head and the body so deeper healing can take place.
As a child, there was little room for my feelings to be expressed, held, seen, or supported within my family. I imagine, if you’re reading this, you may have had similar experiences. When you grow up in a narcissistic, toxic, or dysfunctional family, you learn quickly that the focus is always on them, their dysfunction, their addiction, their toxicity, their needs. In my family there was very little emotional capacity from the adults to understand how much pain, fear, stress, and anxiety I was in because they didn’t have the tools or resources to understand or process the emotions and feelings of their own bodies, let alone mine. This is what generational trauma looks like, family members unconsciously passing their unprocessed trauma from generation to generation.
As trauma survivors, it was often safer to be our heads than in our bodies.
As children, we rely on our parents and caretakers for our basic needs, to attune to our emotions and feelings, teach us how to self-regulate (by first co-regulating with us), and give us safe space to explore and grow. At this developmental stage, we are vulnerable to the outside world. Our caretakers hold the key to our survival. In a healthy family environment, these skills set us up for healthy adulthood. This safe container helps us to connect to and find safety within ourselves so that we can then do the same in the external world.
Growing up with an alcoholic mom and a dysfunctional family meant that I didn’t get the chance to harness those important life skills. The adults in my life were inconsistent, unreliable, and untrustworthy. I experienced a tremendous amount of disappointment from an early age, as I realized I couldn’t count on my tribe. Not having my feelings, emotions, fears, and concerns addressed or validated left me feeling emotionally and physically abandoned by the people I had to count on for my survival. These experiences taught me it wasn’t safe for me to have feelings or emotions, so I learned to shut them off in order to protect myself from further disappointment and abandonment.
Surviving the dysfunctional environment of addicts means you have to be alert and self-protective. Instead of being nurtured and cared for, I was learning how to be hyper-vigilant to my environment and the surrounding people. Because it wasn’t safe to live in my body (have emotions and feelings about what was going on around me), I learned to live in my head where I could put my hyper-vigilant skills to work. I counted beers, watched for slurring, paid attention to mood changes, and never got too comfortable in one place (I had to move a lot as a kid). We learn to do what we have to in order to survive. It’s often not until years later that we finally have the opportunity t slow down and understand what was really happening for us.
WHAT WE THINK OF AS “SAFETY” IS ACTUALLY A HYPER AROUSED NERVOUS SYSTEM STUCK IN THE “ON” POSITION.
What has felt like “safety” since childhood is actually an overworked nervous system. That hyper-vigilant state I talked about earlier that helped me to identify dangers in my environment, that is the body’s natural fight-or-flight system that kicks in to protect us. Because for many trauma survivors, our day-to-day lives felt dangerous, unpredictable, and chaotic, our bodies self-protective system got stuck in the “on” position. Not understanding that this happened, we continued to live in this state as adults with no awareness of it or how it was impacting our lives.
While my body did exactly what it was supposed to in order to help me survive my toxic childhood, I eventually (like in my 30s) realized it wasn’t helping anymore and if I was honest with myself (that came even later) it was actually hurting me and impeding my growth. Not allowing our feelings and emotions to have space in our lives can only last for so long. Unprocessed grief, fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness do not simply disappear. Relying only on logic and thinking through life instead of also allowing ourselves to feel through it, more often than not, causes more anxiety, angst, and frustration, often resulting in complete emotional dysregulation. All the while, the root of the problem lives on in our bodies – building up over weeks, months, years, or even decades in my experience.
Like everything in life, we need balance. Our bodies are amazing. What they can do for us is remarkable. I often look back over my life in wonder and amazement that I’m still here and in pretty good shape for what I’ve been through. My hyper aroused nervous system played a huge role in that. I can offer compassion and gratitude while learning how to give it a break, allowing my mind to rest so my body can process and bring balance to the entire system.
“Trauma impacts much more than just our thoughts and actions. Trauma is far-reaching and systemic—it cuts us to our bones. It can dissolve our sense of identity, diminish our capacity to locate ourselves accurately in time and space, inhibit our tolerance for interpersonal relatedness, disrupt the coherence of our experience, impair our capacity for emotional regulation, and so much more. “~ Albert Wong, Ph.D.
3 WAYS WE CAN CREATE MORE BALANCE BETWEEN THE MIND AND THE BODY
Moving out of the thinking mind and into the feeling body after living there for so long is no simple task. If you’ve been on your own healing journey for any amount of time, it’s likely you’ve already come to realize this. If not, I hope I can help you connect the dots. I know it can be a hard pill to swallow when recognizing that our old ways of surviving aren’t helping anymore. While this step is challenging, we can see it as an opportunity to expand our growth edge. Here are a few steps you can start taking right now to support you.
1. Awareness & Self-Compassion
I deeply believe that awareness and self-compassion play a huge role in our healing. We can’t change a pattern until we see how it’s showing up and impacting our lives. This means we have to be willing to open our heart and mind to seeing which patterns are not supporting our growth and healing. Once we bring awareness to a pattern and see it for what it is, it’s common to trigger our inner-critic who then wants to judge us harshly. Practicing self-compassion by reminding yourself and your parts that these patterns were created to keep you safe and support your survival will help you move through this step more gently.
2. Connection to a Safe Other
While it is entirely possible to begin the path of healing on your own, healing interpersonal trauma requires the connection of a “safe other.” This safe person helps us to activate our social engagement systems. As survivors of relational trauma, we commonly find it difficult to connect or attune to others, for all the reasons I spoke about above, of course. We often lack a felt sense of belonging in the world and sometimes struggle with emotional and physical intimacy. We’ve learned to keep people at a distance to protect ourselves – in order to heal, we have to learn how to find safety in others. One safe relationship can deeply impact a survivor’s ability to heal from trauma.
3. Whole Systems Approach to Healing
Healing from childhood trauma, also known as developmental or relational trauma, requires a whole systems approach. There is no one size fits all or cookie cutter approach to healing the experiences many of us have had to endure. This is because trauma was inflicted upon us by the people who were supposed to keep us safe during our most crucial developmental years. This type of trauma leaves deep and lasting impacts on who we become as adults. Because of that, it requires a unique approach to healing. While traditional talk therapy is and can be helpful in certain stages of healing, developmental trauma requires we move from the thinking mind and into the body to get to the core of our deepest wounds. I challenge you to explore the many healing modalities that are currently available and scientifically proven to support healing. In addition, to this exploration, it’s important to create healthy daily routines around nutrition, water intake, movement, mindfulness, quiet time for reflection and healthy community support.
“Trauma impacts much more than just our prefrontal cortex or our behavioral activation system. It impacts our whole being—and it must be treated from a whole being perspective. Importantly, any legitimate trauma treatment must consider all of our being—the entirety of our body-mind—not just our thoughts and behaviors, alone.”
~ Albert Wong, Ph.D.
Creating balance between the thinking mind and the feeling body is pretty challenging for those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families. I don’t expect you to make this shift overnight. You shouldn’t either. Like exercise or other lifestyle changes, this is a practice. It takes time and commitment. My hope here is at the very least, I’ve helped you to bring a bit of awareness to a pattern and you can slowly start to pay attention to how and when it shows up for you in your daily life. From there, you can practice moving into the body at your own pace and when it feels safe (possibly with a trauma informed professional).
If you are you ready to connect the dots between what happened to you and how it’s impacting your adult life so that you can finally begin to heal those wounds, I would love to support you. My 1:1 coaching container creates a compassionate, non-judgmental, and safe space that meets you right where you are today. From there we move at a pace that supports your life, goals, and visions for your unique and beautiful future, a future that can look anyway you CHOOSE.
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You never know how one conversation could shift the direction of your life.
Lots of love ~ Morgan
September 19, 2022