Why do SO few people make real progress recovering from the long term effects of childhood trauma?
If you ask me, it’s because of the misguided belief that telling the story of what happened in the past — if we just probe the memories enough and generate enough emotions around those memories — will somehow make everything better. And now this belief in “the story” dominates the kind of help you can get when you ask for help, and it dominates decisions about what health insurance will cover. And yet the evidence suggests that this hard focus on memories and feelings just don’t heal trauma.
I want to show a different way to approach the long term effects of abuse and neglect in childhood — one that is based more closely on science and recent research about the real nature of trauma. Compared to the memories-and emotions approach (for example, when a therapist says “Tell me about happened in your childhood…” and “What feelings come up for you around that?”), those are not irrelevant questions. But the approach I’m about to teach you more accurately targets the real problem with Childhood PTSD or Complex PTSD (that’s what it’s called when the trauma symptoms come from long-term, ongoing exposure to intense stress, which is what happens for abused and neglected kids).
The approach I’ll show you points you more directly to the spots where you need healing, and where healing is possible. You can’t change what happened in the past but you can work on healing your symptoms right now. Present time is a powerful place to be when you’re healing the CPTSD.. As a survivor of early trauma myself, I can tell you first-hand how important it is to have tools in your hands, at all times, to handle CPTSD symptoms right when they’re happening . Not just in a weekly appointment if you’re lucky enough to afford that, but right now, on your sofa, In your car, on the bus, at work. We have to have a way to get relief from that intense distress when the old stuff is triggered.
We’re so vulnerable in those moments, and when we’re triggered is when all the bad stuff happens — the emotional outbursts that hurt our relationships, the terrible choices, the loss of focus that has cost us money and time and progress in our careers. Think about it: If you had a way to prevent the life catastrophes that have happened for you when your CPTSD symptoms were triggered, your life could be very, very different,. Do you agree? I’ll come back to triggers in a moment.
But any solution that’s genuinely going to help you heal the trauma and turn around the damage that it’s caused you — your relationships, your career, your family life, your mental and physical health — it has to both give you relief now, and it has to give you a way to make lasting changes. This is so that a year from now or even a month from now, you can be happier and stronger and more free to live your life the way you want to, than you are right now. I’m not talking about external circumstances. I’m talking about internal limitations, for example, the way we avoid sticking our necks out to go for what we want… or we latch onto sick relationships and then we don’t leave… or we spend years avoiding people and social situations that are challenging simply because it’s too triggering.
If your CPTSD symptoms are going to pop up every time you try to expand your life, it really IS safer to avoid life, so you can see how we get into this scared, stuck, “Oh what’s the point” place. We might be holding on to justifications for playing it small, like “:eople are so awful,” or “The world’s never gives a chance to people like me.”
But the truth is that when we haven’t learned to manage and heal our CPTSD symptoms, making our world small is pretty much our only defense against triggers that we can’t control. It’s not really possible to make the triggering events stop forever. You just end up leaving one situation to get yourself into another. The triggers keep coming because that’s the nature of the world!
All you can really change is your triggered response (to learn how, check the links at the end of this post). And when you no longer GET triggered by certain things that flood you with adrenaline and emotion and throw you onto shaky ground, guess what? It’s not a trigger anymore. That’s how you get free, whether you tell the story of your past trauma three times or a thousand times, it’s your triggered reaction to events beyond your control that will block your healing every time.
So how do you defuse the triggers? I’ll tell you how I’ve done it for myself and what I teach my students. I’ve narrowed it down to three aspects of Complex CPTSD; these aspects are where I believe the trouble lies — they’re the primary manifestations of our adult symptoms and likewise, they’re the big areas of opportunity for healing:
- Dysregulation of the brain, nervous system and emotions;
- Difficulty forming and handling relationships with other people;
- A tendency to fall into self-defeating behaviors.
So dysregulation, disconnection, and self-defeating behaviors. I call these “the trauma trifecta,” a term that describes the three sources of virtually all our CPTSD-related problems — dysregulation, disconnection, and self-defeating behaviors. These three affect every level of our being — our thoughts, emotions, work, relationships, neurology, physiology — basically everything.
We know scientifically that all these parts of ourselves are directly impacted by past trauma. And what’s causing that? It’s not the past directly anymore. It’s our ingrained reaction to day-to-day life in present time. This is good news, because it’s pretty hard to change the world when you’re focusing all your healing on other people and the past (two things you can’t change). You might learn more or make discoveries about why you are the way you are, but healing is only partially cognitive –it’s not all about knowing. (I wish it were — a lot more people would be healed).
Healing might involve knowing, but mostly it’s about changing, taking action, practicing, and strengthening your ability to re-regulate yourself. It’s about learning to form full and loving relationships with other people and set boundaries, and to stop sabotaging yourself with blind or destructive choices that cause waste and tragedy in your life and the lives of others. The focus has to shift from what other people did, to what we are doing to re-traumatize ourselves, and what we’re not doing that needs to be done if we’re going to become our real selves and live life for real.
It’s easier said than done. But that’s how we heal. It’s totally possible. The trauma trifecta is why I say that recovering old memories and “feeling your feelings” isn’t going to be enough. What we need is more concrete and present-time than that.
We need a way to a) get emotional relief right away when we’re triggered; b) neutralize triggers so we’re not held hostage by people and circumstances we can’t control; and c) honestly face the life problems that have piled up in our lives. There’s no way out but through. We have to face the problems we are not perpetuating. There’s no shame in having these problems. They’re totally normal in the lives of traumatized people. It’s not our fault we’re traumatized. But these problems are now blocking our healing and we’re the only ones who can change that.
This is very different from the more traditional approach of focusing almost entirely on memories and feelings. Memories and emotions are important or relevant to healing, but without real work and change in the areas of re-regulation, re-connection and self-supporting behaviors, memories and feelings can’t take you where you’re trying to go — which is to a place of freedom.
If you follow my channel or take my courses you know that’s what I do – I teach people to recognize and heal trauma symptoms within this trifecta, whether they have access to professional help or not. This week I opened up brand new coaching programs for people who want to go deeper with this type of healing, and I put a link to that in the description section if you want to find out more about that.
So for right now, where do you start? Where can you break strike a crack into that vicious circle, and change the dynamic? The answer is virtualy anywhere in the circle. You can start anywhere you find the opportunity. You can learn to re-regulate. I have a free course to get you started — the daily practice. I’ll link that in the description section too. You can change a self-defeating behavior, maybe start with something easy to change. Or you can practice being more present with the people who are in your life, and consciously develop your capacity to feel connected.
Any one thing you do will have a ripple effect on the others. Don’t push so hard you freak out and give up. Just take small steps every day. There is no more powerful strategy for integrating real change in your life over time. What doesn’t work is just avoiding the whole thing and trying to get to the end of your life without more trouble. What doesn’t work is raging or venting or demanding that people apologize or change. Nobody could blame us for wanting that, but it doesn’t fix CPTSD.
And it doesn’t work to blame other people for giving you the wrong kind of help. The world is figuring this out together and now is the chance to educate yourself and get strategies you can use and keep with you, no matter what kind of challenges you’ve faced, or what kind of help you’ve already tried. You’re always going to need your own tools. The solution is get more regulated, more connected, and more committed to supporting yourself — not defeating but supporting and embracing yourself as a deserving and evolving human.
You’re a good soul, no matter what your struggles are. Healing usually feels messy at first; don’t worry about that. Because I promise you, that if you continue to make an effort steadily, things begin to come together. You can feel better today and you can build your recovery over time. It’s totally doable. You’ve got this.