Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships

by:  

Survivors of childhood trauma deserve all the peace and security that a loving relationship can provide. But a history of abuse or neglect can make trusting another person feel terrifying. Trying to form an intimate relationship may lead to frightening missteps and confusion.

How can we better understand the impact of trauma, and help survivors find the love, friendship and support they and their partner deserve?

How People Cope With Unresolved Trauma

Whether the trauma was physical, sexual, or emotional, the impact can show up in a host of relationship issues. Survivors often believe deep down that no one can really be trusted, that intimacy is dangerous, and for them, a real loving attachment is an impossible dream. Many tell themselves they are flawed, not good enough and unworthy of love. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.

When early childhood relationships are sources of overwhelming fear, or when absent, insecure or disorganized attachment leaves a person feeling helpless and alone, the mind needs some way to cope. A child may latch onto thoughts like

  • Don’t trust, it’s not safe!
  • Don’t reach out, don’t be a burden to anyone!
  • Don’t dwell on how you feel, just move along!

These ideas may help a person cope when they hurt so badly every day and just need to survive. But they do not help the emerging adult make sense of their inner world or learn how to grow and relate to others. Even if the survivor finds a safe, loving partner later in life, the self-limiting scripts stay with them. They cannot just easily toss them and start over. These life lessons are all they have (so far) to survive the best way they know how.

Noticing Trauma’s Impact On Behavior and Mood

Many times, trauma survivors re-live childhood experiences with an unresponsive or abusive partner (an important topic for another article). This often happens without the ability to see the reasons why they feel compelled to pursue unhealthy relationships. Beneath awareness is a drive to revisit unresolved trauma, and finally make things right. Of course, childhood wounds cannot be repaired this way unless there are two willing partners working on changing those cycles. But if these forces remain unnoticed, survivors can get caught in a cycle of abuse.

Even with a safe partner, a trauma survivor may

  • Experience depression
  • Develop compulsive behavior, an eating disorder, or substance dependence to try and regulate their emotions
  • Have flashbacks or panic attacks
  • Feel persistent self-doubt
  • Have suicidal thoughts
  • Seek or carry out the adverse behavior they experienced as a child

Get a printable Flashback Halting Guide with 10 Ways to Help Manage Flashbacks:

Partners of trauma survivors may want desperately to help. But partners need to “be clear that it is not your problem to fix and you don’t have the power to change another human being,” says Lisa Ferentz, LCSW in a post for partners of trauma survivors. Rather, know that both of you deserve to connect with resources to help you find comfort and healing.

Seeing Trauma’s Impact On Relationships

It is important to recognize unhealed trauma as a dynamic force in an intimate relationship. It can super-charge emotions, escalate issues, and make it seem impossible to communicate effectively. Issues become complicated by:

  • Heightened reactions to common relationship issues
  • Emotionally fueled disagreements
  • Withdrawal or distant, unresponsive behavior
  • Aversion to conflict and inability to talk through issues
  • Assumptions that the partner is against them when it is not the case
  • Lingering doubt about a partner’s love and faithfulness
  • Difficulty accepting love, despite repeated reassurance

In a relationship, a history of trauma is not simply one person’s problem to solve. Anything that affects one partner impacts the other and the relationship. With guidance from therapy, partners begin to see how to untangle the issues.

Many people do not even realize that they have had traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed therapy works by helping couples begin to see how they experienced traumatic abuse or neglect, and how it still affects them, and impacts their current relationships. This approach enables the therapist to provide specific insights to help couples separate past issues from present ones. Progress often comes more readily through a combination of individual sessions and work as a couple.

Trauma-informed therapy helps partners give each other the gift of what I and other therapists call psychoeducation – learning to understand each individual’s story, how it impacts their relationship, and how to process thoughts and emotions in healthier ways.

The Importance of Self-Care For Trauma Survivors and Their Partners

Trauma survivors and their partners have different needs for support. How can one respond when the other is grappling with mental health issues? How do you calm things down when overwhelming emotions get triggered?

It takes therapy for couples to find answers that are most healing for them. But some general tips for trauma survivors and their partners that can help are:

  • Have a really good support system for each of you and the relationship. Make time for family and friends who are positive about your relationship and respect you and your loved one.
  • Find a trauma-informed therapist to guide you as a couple or as individuals in your effort to better understand yourselves and each other.
  • Find resources outside of therapy such as support groups or other similar activities
  • Take time for psychoeducation. Learn about the nature of trauma, self-care and healing techniques like mindfulness. For example, one helpful model is Stan Taktin’s “couple bubble.” This is a visual aid to help partners see how to become a more secure, well-functioning couple. Surrounding yourself and your partner with an imaginary bubble “means that the couple is aware in public and in private they protect each other at all times. They don’t allow either of them to be the third wheel for very long, at least not without repair. In this way, everybody actually fares much better.” See More Helpful Resources below.

Communication Tips for Partners of Trauma Survivors

Building a healthy bond with a trauma survivor means working a lot on communication. Grappling with relationship issues can heighten fear and may trigger flashbacks for someone with a history of trauma.

Learning how to manage communication helps couples restore calm and provide comfort as their understanding of trauma grows. For example, couples can:

  • Use self-observation to recognize when to slow down or step back as feelings escalate
  • Practice mindfulness to raise awareness and recognize triggers for each of you
  • Develop some phrases to help you stay grounded in the present and re-direct your dialog, such as:
    • “I wonder if we can slow this down.
    • “It seems like we’re getting triggered. Can we figure out what’s going on with us?”
    • “I wonder if we are heading into old territory.”
    • “I’m thinking this could be something we should talk about in therapy.”
    • “I wonder if we could try and stay grounded in what is going on for us – is that possible?”

Communication can also help a partner comfort a loved one during a flashback. Techniques include:

  • Reminding the person that he or she is safe.
  • Calling attention to the here and now (referencing the present date, location and other immediate sights and sounds).
  • Offering a glass of water, which can help stop a flashback surprisingly well. (It activates the salivary glands, which in turn stimulates the behavior-regulating prefrontal cortex.)

Healing childhood wounds takes careful, hard work. But it is possible to replace old rules bit by bit. Finding a therapist who can recognize and acknowledge the hurt, which the survivor has carried alone for so long, is key to repairing deep wounds.

Partners may decide to work individually with their own trauma-informed therapist, while working with another as a couple, to provide the resources they need. When a survivor of early trauma can finally find comforting connection with a therapist, and then with their partner, the relationship between the couple can begin to support deep healing as well.

The more we understand about the impact of trauma, the more we can help those touched by it to go beyond surviving, and find the healing security of healthier loving relationships.

More Helpful Resources

Articles and Websites

Helping a Partner Who Engages in Self-Destructive Behaviors” by Lisa Ferentz, LCSW

Trauma-Informed Care; Understanding the Many Challenges of Toxic Stress” by Robyn Brickel, M.A., LMFT

Sidran Institute (resources for traumatic stress education and advocacy)

Books

Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused As a Child by Laura Davis

Trust After Trauma: A Guide to Relationships for Survivors and Those Who Love Them by Aphrodite Matsakis

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel

 

How not to say the wrong thing

By: Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

 

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

There was nothing wrong with Katie’s friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn’t think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own.

Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

And don’t worry. You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”

http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

What Really Happens in a Therapy Session

When you take your car to the car mechanic, you know what’s going to happen: Your car will get repaired.

When you break a bone and visit your doctor, you know what’s going to happen: Your bone will be set in a splint or cast and eventually heal.

But when you make an appointment to see a therapist, do you know what’s going to happen? Many people aren’t quite certain. Will you just talk? Will you have to discuss your childhood? Will you be “hypnotized?” And what’s the “point” of seeing a therapist, anyway? Why not just talk to a friend?

There is a great deal of uncertainty in our society about what actually happens during a therapy session, what types of issues and problems are suitable for therapy, and what benefits a therapy session can provide. I’d like to address a few typical questions—and misconceptions—about what therapy is, what it isn’t, and how it really works.

Q: Do I have to be “sick” or “disturbed” to go see a therapist?
A: No. Thinking that one has to be “seriously disturbed” in order to see a therapist is a myth.

While some therapists do specialize in severe emotional disturbances—including schizophrenia or suicidal thoughts—many focus on simply helping clients work through far more typical, everyday challenges like mapping out a career change, improving parenting skills, strengthening stressmanagement skills, or navigating a divorce. Just as some physicians specialize in curing life-threatening illnesses, while others treat “everyday” illnesses like flus, coughs, and colds, psychotherapists can serve a wide range of clients with a range of needs and goals, too.

In fact, most of my clients are successful, high-achieving people who are quite healthy, overall. Most are challenged by a specific, personal goal—like losing weight, creating more work-life balance, finding ways to parent more effectively, or feeling anxious about dating again after a rough break up.

Q: How can I choose the right therapist for my goal/situation?
A: Choosing a therapist is like choosing any other service provider—it’s a good idea to visit the practitioner’s website, and read client testimonials or reviews (if they have any—many do not, for confidentiality reasons). It’s also good to ask friends and family members, or your physician, for referrals (and of course, check to see who is covered in your health insurance network).

If you are hoping to work on a specific issue—overeating, smoking, making a career change—try to find a therapist with expertise in that area. Many list their specialties or areas of focus on their websites. There are therapists who specialize in relationship issues, parenting issues, anger management, weight issues, or sexuality—pretty much any issue, goal, or situation you can imagine. If you’re not sure about someone’s expertise, just call them and ask. If they can’t be of assistance with your issue, they may be able to refer you to someone who can.

Q: What actually happens during a therapy session?
A: Each session is, essentially, a problem-solving session. You describe your current situation, and your feelings about it, and then the therapist uses their expertise to assist you in trying to resolve that problem so you can move closer to having the life you wish to have.

At the beginning of a session, the therapist typically invites you to share what’s been going on in your life, what’s on your mind, what’s bothering you, or whether there are any goals you’d like to discuss. You’ll be invited to speak openly. The therapist will listen and may take notes as you speak; some, like myself, take notes after a session. You won’t be criticized, interrupted or judged as you speak. Your conversation will be kept in the strictest confidentiality. This is a special, unique type of conversation in which you can say exactly what you feel—total honesty—without worrying that you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings, damage a relationship, or be penalized in any way. Anything you want—or need—to say is OK.

Some therapists (like myself) may give clients some homework to complete after a session. That homework might be to set up an online dating profile and reach out for a first date, or to exercise three times a week. It may be to spend some time each day pounding a pillow to safely release pent-up emotions, make a nightly journal entry, or any number of “steps” and “challenges” relevant to your goals. During your next session, you might share your progress and address any areas where you got frustrated, stuck, or off-track.

Of course, every therapist is different, every client is unique, and every therapist-client relationship is distinct as well—which means that there is nouniversal description of a therapy session. Some therapists employ dream interpretation in their work. Others bring music or art therapy into their work. Others incorporate hypnotherapy, life coachingmeditationvisualization, or role-playing exercises to “rehearse” challenging conversations. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, regardless of their approach, a therapist will listen without judgment and help clients try to find solutions to the challenges they face.

Q: Will I have to talk about my childhood?
A: Not necessarily. Many people think that visiting a therapist means digging up old skeletons from your childhood, or talking about how awful your mother was, etc. That is a myth. What you talk about during a therapy session will largely depend on your unique situation and goals. And depending on your goals, you may not actually talk about your past that much. The focus of your therapy is as likely to be your present-day reality and the future that you wish to create.

That being said, if you REALLY do NOT want to discuss your childhood, the intensity of your desire NOT to talk about it might suggest that you should! When people have strong negative emotions—about their childhood or any other topic—it’s typically worth doing some excavating to figure out why that is. Whatever is causing them to feel such strong emotions about the past is more than likely impacting their present-day life in some way, too.

Q: How long will I have to go to therapy?
A: This varies from person to person. I’ve had clients who booked one session, we worked out their issue(s), and they were all set: They marched out and didn’t need a follow-up session. Sometimes, one brave, honest conversation is really all you need.

Other clients have booked sessions with me over a period of several weeks or months, focusing on one issue, resolving that issue, then perhaps moving on to a different challenge. Then there are other clients who I’ve been working with for some time—they appreciate having a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly “check-in.” They may share their feelings, sharpen their life skills as needed, or perhaps enjoy a deeply nourishing guided meditation or hypnotherapy experience to de-stress. As one client put it, “Every two weeks when I meet with you, I leave your office feeling like you pressed my reset button.”

Therapy is really about whatever a client needs—a one-time conversation, a temporary source of support during a life transition, or an ongoing experience to optimize health physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.


Q: Is meeting with a therapist over the phone—or through video chat—just as effective as meeting in person?
A: That depends on your personality and preferences. In the state of Hawaii, where I live, at least one insurer that I know of covers doing therapy virtually via video chat (like Skype or Facetime). This makes it a convenient option for people. Many of my clients do enjoy having some, or all, of their sessions via video chat because it means they don’t have to take time out of their busy schedules to drive, park, and so on. They can just close their bedroom or office door, pick up the phone or log in, and away we go—very convenient.

Where feasible, I suggest trying out both ways—do a traditional, in-person therapy session and then try a video session—and see which format is the best fit for you.

Q: Why see a therapist? Why not just talk to a friend or someone in my family?
A: If you are blessed with caring, supportive family members and friends, by all means, share your feelings, goals, and dreams with those people. They are a big part of your support network, and their insights and encouragement can be very helpful. However, people who already know you might not always be completely objective when listening to you. For example, you may want to change your career, and you confess this dream to your wife. She may want to support you 100%, and try her very best to do so, but she may also be dealing with emotions of her own—such as anxietyabout how a career shift will change your lives, not to mention your income. These emotions could make it difficult for her to listen and support you objectively.

This is why working with a therapist can be so valuable. It’s a unique opportunity to share everything you’re feeling, and everything you want to create, without anyone interrupting you, imposing his or her own anxieties onto the conversation, or telling you that you’re “wrong” or that you “can’t.”

A therapy session is a space where you don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else’s feelings—you can be totally honest. It also means you have the potential to solve problems faster and with greater success. In the long run, that’s better for you and everyone else involved in your life, too.

To sum it up:
Therapy is a valuable tool that can help you to solve problems, set and achieve goals, improve your communication skills, or teach you new ways to track your emotions and keep your stress levels in check. It can help you to build the life, career, and relationship that you want. Does everybody needit? No. But if you are curious about working with a therapist, that curiosity is worth pursuing. Consider setting up one or two sessions, keep an open mind, and see how things unfold. You have very little to lose and, potentially, a lot of clarity, self-understanding, and long-lasting happiness to gain.

Suzanne Gelb, Ph.D., J.D, is a clinical psychologist and life coach. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be: Strong. Confident. Calm. Creative. Free of all of the burdens that have held you back—no matter what has happened in the past. Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at TimeForbesNewsweekThe Huffington PostNBC‘s TodayThe Daily LovePositively Positive, and much more. Step into her virtual office, explore her blog, book a session, or sign up to receive a free meditation and her writings on health, happiness and self-respect.

We Want You Here

By Laura Greenstein | Sep. 24, 2018

 

Sometimes life can feel like a burden. It can feel like each day is a challenge. As if making it to your bed at the end of the day is like reaching the finish line of a long race. It can feel as if each interaction is a struggle. As if you only have a limited amount of oxygen, and each word you speak is a drain on your supply.

For those of you who have ever thought about suicide, you know this feeling all too well.

But you should know that you are so strong.

You’re strong for still being here even when your thoughts tell you that being alive isn’t worth the pain. You are strong for carrying the weight of it all on your shoulders for so long. For carrying it by yourself even while thinking you were alone in the way you feel—even while believing that no one and nothing out there could take off some of the weight.

But you should know that you are not alone.

We are a whole community of people who understand what you’re facing. And more than anything, we want to help you. You don’t have to go through this alone. We want you to ask us for help. We want to help you carry that heavy weight because we understand what it’s like to burden it alone. We may not know exactly what you’re facing, but we understand what it’s like to feel hopeless.

But you should know that there is hope.

There are resources. There is help. There is support. There is time. Time that forces everything to change. You may not feel okay today, but that is okay. The awful way you feel is not permanent. You may feel like you can’t bear the pain any longer, you may feel like you don’t have it in you to reach out for help, but you are stronger than you know, and we believe in you.

And you should know that you are worth it.

You are worthy. You are important. Your life is important. You deserve a place on this planet, and we deserve to have you with us.

And you should know that you are an inspiration. 

You have faced more than many can fathom and yet here you stand. Your strength is a source of hope for those who feel the same as you do. Not only should you feel comfortable telling us about your darkest moments, but we want to hear it.

And you should know there is no shame in your story.

To feel shame is, unfortunately, part of our experience. But it is not fair. It is not fair to yourself. Because the way you feel is not your fault. You should never blame yourself for your darkness. Your darkness if a part of your story, and we accept you.

More than anything, you should know that we want you here.

 

Laura Greenstein is communications manager at NAMI. 

 

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2018/We-Want-You-Here

PTSD And Trauma: Not Just For Veterans

When we think about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s typically in the context of active duty service members and veterans—for good reason. Dangerous and potentially traumatic situations are common occurrences in the context of military service. However, it’s important to note that PTSD is not exclusive to this type of trauma.

In the U.S., about eight million people experience PTSD. While any traumatic experience can lead to PTSD, there are a few types of trauma that are the most common. Examples include sexual assault/abuse, natural disasters, accidents/injuries to self or other, or being in a life-threatening situation. When you consider these examples, it’s understandable why people would associate PTSD most frequently with military service members. However, this assumption can be problematic.

If people believe that only service members and veterans can develop PTSD, the recognition of symptoms and treatment can be delayed. The fact is: Anyone can develop PTSD when they experience or witness a traumatic event—adult or child, man or woman. Anyone.

How Do You Know If You Have PTSD?

About 50% of all people will go through at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime. But not everyone will develop PTSD. In fact, the majority won’t. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between the typical symptoms that follow a traumatic event and when it has reached the point that a condition like PTSD has developed.

It’s common for people who experience trauma to have nightmares or flashbacks for a few weeks and then gradually improve. It’s when those symptoms don’t improve and begin to interfere with a person’s life that a mental health evaluation should be considered. A person who experiences the following intense symptoms for more than a month may have PTSD:

  • At least one “re-experiencing” symptom (flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts)
  • At least one avoidance symptom (avoiding thoughts, feeling, places, objects or events related to the traumatic experience)
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms (easily startled, feeling tense, difficulty sleeping, outbursts of anger)
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms (difficulty remembering details of the traumatic experience, negative thoughts, distorted feelings, loss of interest)

It’s important to note that PTSD-related symptoms may not occur immediately after the traumatic event; they may not surface until weeks or months afterwards. Another major, key difference between typical reactions and PTSD is that while most will remember the fear they felt during trauma, PTSD can cause a person to actually feel as if they are reliving that fear.

What Should You Do After Trauma?

If a person feels supported by friends and family after a traumatic event, it can reduce the risk of developing symptoms of PTSD. It can also be helpful for a person to join a support group, so they can share their thoughts, fears and questions with other people who have also experienced trauma. Using healthy, positive coping strategies—such as exercise, mediation or playing an instrument—can also be helpful.

If symptoms persist, it’s essential to seek treatment. Those with PTSD typically respond better to structured therapies such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – helps a person replace their negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) – exposes a person to traumatic memories with varying stimuli, such as eye movements
  • Exposure therapy – helps a person safely face their fears so they can learn to cope with them
  • Imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) – is a new treatment for reducing the intensity and frequency of nightmares

If you or someone you know is having a difficult time coping with trauma, these interventions can make a huge difference. PTSD is treatable. It’s more effective if treated early, but it’s never too late to get treatment no matter how long ago the trauma occurred.

Trauma is a part of life—it affects most people at some point. But that doesn’t mean it’s a mundane experience that can be ignored or brushed off. The key is to check-in on symptoms and seek care from a mental health professional if they persist.

Whether you’re a military service member, veteran, salesperson or elementary school student, PTSD has the potential to develop in any of us. And if it does, please know that help is available. No one should face PTSD alone.

Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2017/PTSD-and-Trauma-Not-Just-for-Veterans

Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships

Survivors of childhood trauma deserve all the peace and security that a loving relationship can provide. But a history of abuse or neglect can make trusting another person feel terrifying. Trying to form an intimate relationship may lead to frightening missteps and confusion.

How can we better understand the impact of trauma, and help survivors find the love, friendship and support they and their partner deserve?

How People Cope With Unresolved Trauma

Whether the trauma was physical, sexual, or emotional, the impact can show up in a host of relationship issues. Survivors often believe deep down that no one can really be trusted, that intimacy is dangerous, and for them, a real loving attachment is an impossible dream. Many tell themselves they are flawed, not good enough and unworthy of love. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.

When early childhood relationships are sources of overwhelming fear, or when absent, insecure or disorganized attachment leaves a person feeling helpless and alone, the mind needs some way to cope. A child may latch onto thoughts like

  • Don’t trust, it’s not safe!
  • Don’t reach out, don’t be a burden to anyone!
  • Don’t dwell on how you feel, just move along!

These ideas may help a person cope when they hurt so badly every day and just need to survive. But they do not help the emerging adult make sense of their inner world or learn how to grow and relate to others. Even if the survivor finds a safe, loving partner later in life, the self-limiting scripts stay with them. They cannot just easily toss them and start over. These life lessons are all they have (so far) to survive the best way they know how.

Noticing Trauma’s Impact On Behavior and Mood

Many times, trauma survivors re-live childhood experiences with an unresponsive or abusive partner (an important topic for another article). This often happens without the ability to see the reasons why they feel compelled to pursue unhealthy relationships. Beneath awareness is a drive to revisit unresolved trauma, and finally make things right. Of course, childhood wounds cannot be repaired this way unless there are two willing partners working on changing those cycles. But if these forces remain unnoticed, survivors can get caught in a cycle of abuse.

Even with a safe partner, a trauma survivor may

  • Experience depression
  • Develop compulsive behavior, an eating disorder, or substance dependence to try and regulate their emotions
  • Have flashbacks or panic attacks
  • Feel persistent self-doubt
  • Have suicidal thoughts
  • Seek or carry out the adverse behavior they experienced as a child

Partners of trauma survivors may want desperately to help. But partners need to “be clear that it is not your problem to fix and you don’t have the power to change another human being,” says Lisa Ferentz, LCSW in a post for partners of trauma survivors. Rather, know that both of you deserve to connect with resources to help you find comfort and healing.

Seeing Trauma’s Impact On Relationships

It is important to recognize unhealed trauma as a dynamic force in an intimate relationship. It can super-charge emotions, escalate issues, and make it seem impossible to communicate effectively. Issues become complicated by:

  • Heightened reactions to common relationship issues
  • Emotionally fueled disagreements
  • Withdrawal or distant, unresponsive behavior
  • Aversion to conflict and inability to talk through issues
  • Assumptions that the partner is against them when it is not the case
  • Lingering doubt about a partner’s love and faithfulness
  • Difficulty accepting love, despite repeated reassurance

In a relationship, a history of trauma is not simply one person’s problem to solve. Anything that affects one partner impacts the other and the relationship. With guidance from therapy, partners begin to see how to untangle the issues.

Many people do not even realize that they have had traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed therapy works by helping couples begin to see how they experienced traumatic abuse or neglect, and how it still affects them, and impacts their current relationships. This approach enables the therapist to provide specific insights to help couples separate past issues from present ones. Progress often comes more readily through a combination of individual sessions and work as a couple.

Trauma-informed therapy helps partners give each other the gift of what I and other therapists call psychoeducation – learning to understand each individual’s story, how it impacts their relationship, and how to process thoughts and emotions in healthier ways.

The Importance of Self-Care For Trauma Survivors and Their Partners

Trauma survivors and their partners have different needs for support. How can one respond when the other is grappling with mental health issues? How do you calm things down when overwhelming emotions get triggered?

It takes therapy for couples to find answers that are most healing for them. But some general tips for trauma survivors and their partners that can help are:

  • Have a really good support system for each of you and the relationship. Make time for family and friends who are positive about your relationship and respect you and your loved one.
  • Find a trauma-informed therapist to guide you as a couple or as individuals in your effort to better understand yourselves and each other.
  • Find resources outside of therapy such as support groups or other similar activities
  • Take time for psychoeducation. Learn about the nature of trauma, self-care and healing techniques like mindfulness. For example, one helpful model is Stan Taktin’s “couple bubble.” This is a visual aid to help partners see how to become a more secure, well-functioning couple. Surrounding yourself and your partner with an imaginary bubble “means that the couple is aware in public and in private they protect each other at all times. They don’t allow either of them to be the third wheel for very long, at least not without repair. In this way, everybody actually fares much better.” See More Helpful Resources below.

Communication Tips for Partners of Trauma Survivors

Building a healthy bond with a trauma survivor means working a lot on communication. Grappling with relationship issues can heighten fear and may trigger flashbacks for someone with a history of trauma.

Learning how to manage communication helps couples restore calm and provide comfort as their understanding of trauma grows. For example, couples can:

  • Use self-observation to recognize when to slow down or step back as feelings escalate
  • Practice mindfulness to raise awareness and recognize triggers for each of you
  • Develop some phrases to help you stay grounded in the present and re-direct your dialog, such as:
    • “I wonder if we can slow this down.
    • “It seems like we’re getting triggered. Can we figure out what’s going on with us?”
    • “I wonder if we are heading into old territory.”
    • “I’m thinking this could be something we should talk about in therapy.”
    • “I wonder if we could try and stay grounded in what is going on for us – is that possible?”

Communication can also help a partner comfort a loved one during a flashback. Techniques include:

  • Reminding the person that he or she is safe.
  • Calling attention to the here and now (referencing the present date, location and other immediate sights and sounds).
  • Offering a glass of water, which can help stop a flashback surprisingly well. (It activates the salivary glands, which in turn stimulates the behavior-regulating prefrontal cortex.)

Healing childhood wounds takes careful, hard work. But it is possible to replace old rules bit by bit. Finding a therapist who can recognize and acknowledge the hurt, which the survivor has carried alone for so long, is key to repairing deep wounds.

Partners may decide to work individually with their own trauma-informed therapist, while working with another as a couple, to provide the resources they need. When a survivor of early trauma can finally find comforting connection with a therapist, and then with their partner, the relationship between the couple can begin to support deep healing as well.

The more we understand about the impact of trauma, the more we can help those touched by it to go beyond surviving, and find the healing security of healthier loving relationships.

More Helpful Resources

Articles and Websites

Helping a Partner Who Engages in Self-Destructive Behaviors” by Lisa Ferentz, LCSW

Trauma-Informed Care; Understanding the Many Challenges of Toxic Stress” by Robyn Brickel, M.A., LMFT

Sidran Institute (resources for traumatic stress education and advocacy)

Books

Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused As a Child by Laura Davis

Trust After Trauma: A Guide to Relationships for Survivors and Those Who Love Them by Aphrodite Matsakis

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel

http://brickelandassociates.com/trauma-survivor-relationships/

10 Things That Changed Me After the Death of a Parent

ALEXANDERNOVIKOV VIA GETTY IMAGES

I don’t think there is anything that can prepare you to lose a parent. It is a larger blow in adulthood I believe, because you are at the point where you are actually friends with your mother or father. Their wisdom has finally sunk in and you know that all of the shit you rolled your eyes at as a teenager really was done out of love and probably saved your life a time or two.

I lost both of mine two years apart; my mother much unexpected and my father rather quickly after a cancer diagnosis. My mom was the one person who could see into my soul and could call me out in the most effective way. She taught me what humanity, empathy and generosity means. My father was the sarcastic realist in the house and one of the most forgiving people I have ever met. If you wanted it straight, with zero bullshit; just go ask my dad.

Grief runs its course and it comes in stages, but I was not prepared for it to never fully go away.

  1. My phone is never more than 1 foot away from me at bedtime, because the last time I did that I missed the call that my mother died.
  2. The very thought of my mother’s death, at times, made me physically ill for about six months after she died. I literally vomited.
  3. Their deaths have at times ripped the remainder of our family apart. I did my best to honor their wishes and sometimes that made me the bad guy. The burden of that was immense, but I understood why I was chosen. It made me stronger as a person, so for that I am grateful.
  4. I’m pissed that my son didn’t get to experience them as grandparents. I watched it five times before his birth and I feel robbed. He would have adored them and they him.
  5. I would not trade my time with them for anything, but sometimes I think it would have been easier had you died when I was very young. The memories would be less.
  6. Don’t bitch about your parents in front of me. You will get an earful about gratitude and appreciation. As a “Dead Parents Club” member, I would take your place in a heartbeat, so shut your mouth. Get some perspective on how truly fleeting life is.
  7. It’s like being a widow — a “club” you never wanted to join. Where do I return this unwanted membership, please?
  8. Other club members are really the only people who can truly understand what it does to a person. They just get it. There is no other way to explain it.
  9. Life does go on, but there will be times even years later, you will still break down like it happened yesterday.
  10. When you see your friends or even strangers with their mom or dad, you will sometimes be jealous. Envious of the lunch date they have. Downright pissed that your mom can’t plan your baby shower. Big life events are never ever the same again.

Here I sit eight and ten years later and there are still times that I reach for the phone when something exciting happens. Then it hits me; shit, I can’t call them.

Their deaths have forever changed me and how I look at the world. In an odd way it has made me a better parent. I am always acutely aware of what memories can mean to my son and how I will impact his life while I am on this earth. He deserves to know how much he is loved and when I am gone, what I teach and instill in him now, will be my legacy.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-schmidt/10-things-that-changed-me-after-the-death-of-a-parent_b_7925406.html

It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are

Trigger Warning: Self Harm, Suicide

A well-documented feature of trauma, one familiar to many, is our inability to articulate what happens to us. We not only lose our words, but something happens with our memory as well. During a traumatic incident, our thought processes become scattered and disorganized in such a way that we no longer recognize the memories as belonging to the original event. Instead, fragments of memory, dispersed as images, body sensations, and words, are stored in our unconscious and can become activated later by anything even remotely reminiscent of the original experience. Once they are triggered, it is as if an invisible rewind button has been pressed, causing us to reenact aspects of the original trauma in our day-to-day lives. Unconsciously, we could find ourselves reacting to certain people, events, or situations in old, familiar ways that echo the past.

Sigmund Freud identified this pattern more than one hundred years ago. Traumatic reenactment, or “repetition compulsion,” as Freud coined it, is an attempt of the unconscious to replay what’s unresolved, so we can “get it right.” This unconscious drive to relive past events could be one of the mechanisms at work when families repeat unresolved traumas in future generations.

Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung also believed that what remains unconscious does not dissolve, but rather resurfaces in our lives as fate or fortune. “Whatever does not emerge as Consciousness,” he said, “returns as Destiny.” In other words, we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness. Both Jung and Freud noted that whatever is too difficult to process does not fade away on its own, but rather is stored in our unconscious.

Freud and Jung each observed how fragments of previously blocked, suppressed, or repressed life experience would show up in the words, gestures, and behaviors of their patients. For decades to follow, therapists would see clues such as slips of the tongue, accident patterns, or dream images as messengers shining a light into the unspeakable and unthinkable regions of their clients’ lives.

Recent advances in imaging technology have allowed researchers to unravel the brain and bodily functions that “misfire” or break down during overwhelming episodes. Bessel van der Kolk is a Dutch psychiatrist known for his research on post-traumatic stress. He explains that during a trauma, the speech center shuts down, as does the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for experiencing the present moment. He describes the “speechless terror” of trauma as the experience of being at a “loss for words”, a common occurrence when brain pathways of remembering are hindered during periods of threat or danger. “When people relive their traumatic experiences,” he says, “the frontal lobes become impaired and, as result, they have trouble thinking and speaking. They are no longer capable of communicating to either themselves or to others precisely what’s going on.”

Still, all is not silent: words, images, and impulses that fragment following a traumatic event reemerge to form a secret language of our suffering we carry with us. Nothing is lost. The pieces have just been rerouted.

Emerging trends in psychotherapy are now beginning to point beyond the traumas of the individual to include traumatic events in the family and social history as a part of the whole picture. Tragedies varying in type and intensity—such as abandonment, suicide and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling—can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next. Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeat.

The following story offers a vivid example. When I first met Jesse, he hadn’t had a full night’s sleep in more than a year. His insomnia was evident in the dark shadows around his eyes, but the blankness of his stare suggested a deeper story. Though only twenty, Jesse looked at least ten years older. He sank onto my sofa as if his legs could no longer bear his weight.

Jesse explained that he had been a star athlete and a straight-A student, but that his persistent insomnia had initiated a downward spiral of depression and despair. As a result, he dropped out of college and had to forfeit the baseball scholarship he’d worked so hard to win. He desperately sought help to get his life back on track. Over the past year, he’d been to three doctors, two psychologists, a sleep clinic, and a naturopathic physician. Not one of them, he related in a monotone, was able to offer any real insight or help. Jesse, gazing mostly at the floor as he shared his story, told me he was at the end of his rope.

When I asked whether he had any ideas about what might have triggered his insomnia, he shook his head. Sleep had always come easily for Jesse. Then, one night just after his nineteenth birthday, he woke suddenly at 3:30 a.m. He was freezing, shivering, unable to get warm no matter what he tried. Three hours and several blankets later, Jesse was still wide awake. Not only was he cold and tired, he was seized by a strange fear he had never experienced before, a fear that something awful could happen if he let himself fall back to sleep. If I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up. Every time he felt himself drifting off, the fear would jolt him back into wakefulness. The pattern repeated itself the next night, and the night after that. Soon insomnia became a nightly ordeal. Jesse knew his fear was irrational, yet he felt helpless to put an end to it.

I listened closely as Jesse spoke. What stood out for me was one unusual detail—he’d been extremely cold, “freezing” he said, just prior to the first episode. I began to explore this with Jesse, and asked him if anyone on either side of the family suffered a trauma that involved being “cold,” or being “asleep,” or being “nineteen.”

Jesse revealed that his mother had only recently told him about the tragic death of his father’s older brother—an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Colin was only nineteen when he froze to death checking power lines in a storm just north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tracks in the snow revealed that he had been struggling to hang on. Eventually, he was found facedown in a blizzard, having lost consciousness from hypothermia. His death was such a tragic loss that the family never spoke his name again. Now, three decades later, Jesse was unconsciously reliving aspects of Colin’s death—specifically, the terror of letting go into unconsciousness. For Colin, letting go meant death. For Jesse, falling asleep must have felt the same.

Making the connection was a turning point for Jesse. Once he grasped that his insomnia had its origin in an event that occurred thirty years earlier, he finally had an explanation for his fear of falling asleep. The process of healing could now begin. With tools Jesse learned in our work together, which will be detailed later in this book, he was able to disentangle himself from the trauma endured by an uncle he’d never met, but whose terror he had unconsciously taken on as his own. Not only did Jesse feel freed from the heavy fog of insomnia, he gained a deeper sense of connection to his family, present and past.

In an attempt to explain stories such as Jesse’s, scientists are now able to identify biological markers— evidence that traumas can and do pass down from one generation to the next. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is one of the world’s leading experts in post-traumatic stress, a true pioneer in this field. In numerous studies, Yehuda has examined the neurobiology of PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children. Her research on cortisol in particular (the stress hormone that helps our body return to normal after we experience a trauma) and its effects on brain function has revolutionized the understanding and treatment of PTSD worldwide. (People with PTSD relive feelings and sensations associated with a trauma despite the fact that the trauma occurred in the past. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, numbness, insomnia, nightmares, frightening thoughts, and being easily startled or “on edge.”)

Yehuda and her team found that children of Holocaust survivors who had PTSD were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation. Her discovery of low cortisol levels in people who experience an acute traumatic event has been controversial, going against the long-held notion that stress is associated with high cortisol levels. Specifically, in cases of chronic PTSD, cortisol production can become suppressed, contributing to the low levels measured in both survivors and their children.

Yehuda discovered similar low cortisol levels in war veterans, as well as in pregnant mothers who developed PTSD after being exposed to the World Trade Center attacks, and in their children. Not only did she find that the survivors in her study produced less cortisol, a characteristic they can pass on to their children, she notes that several stress-related psychiatric disorders, including PTSD, chronic pain syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are associated with low blood levels of cortisol. Interestingly, 50 to 70 percent of PTSD patients also meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression or another mood or anxiety disorder.

Yehuda’s research demonstrates that you and I are three times more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD if one of our parents had PTSD, and as a result, we’re likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. She believes that this type of generational PTSD is inherited rather than occurring from our being exposed to our parents’ stories of their ordeals. Yehuda was one of the first researchers to show how descendants of trauma survivors carry the physical and emotional symptoms of traumas they do not directly experience.

That was the case with Gretchen. After years of taking antidepressants, attending talk and group therapy sessions, and trying various cognitive approaches for mitigating the effects of stress, her symptoms of depression and anxiety remained unchanged.

Gretchen told me she no longer wanted to live. For as long as she could remember, she had struggled with emotions so intense she could barely contain the surges in her body. Gretchen had been admitted several times to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed as bipolar with a severe anxiety disorder. Medication brought her slight relief, but never touched the powerful suicidal urges that lived inside her. As a teenager, she would self-injure by burning herself with the lit end of a cigarette. Now, at thirty-nine, Gretchen had had enough. Her depression and anxiety, she said, had prevented her from ever marrying and having children. In a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone of voice, she told me that she was planning to commit suicide before her next birthday.

Listening to Gretchen, I had the strong sense that there must be significant trauma in her family history. In such cases, I find it’s essential to pay close attention to the words being spoken for clues to the traumatic event underlying a client’s symptoms.

When I asked her how she planned to kill herself, Gretchen said that she was going to vaporize herself. As incomprehensible as it might sound to most of us, her plan was literally to leap into a vat of molten steel at the mill where her brother worked. “My body will incinerate in seconds,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, “even before it reaches the bottom.”

I was struck by her lack of emotion as she spoke. Whatever feeling lay beneath appeared to have been vaulted deep inside. At the same time, the words vaporize and incinerate rattled inside me. Having worked with many children and grandchildren whose families were affected by the Holocaust, I’ve learned to let their words lead me. I wanted Gretchen to tell me more.

I asked if anyone in her family was Jewish or had been involved in the Holocaust. Gretchen started to say no, but then stopped herself and recalled a story about her grandmother. She had been born into a Jewish family in Poland, but converted to Catholicism when she came to the United States in 1946 and married Gretchen’s grandfather. Two years earlier, her grandmother’s entire family had perished in the ovens at Auschwitz. They had literally been gassed—engulfed in poisonous vapors—and incinerated. No one in Gretchen’s immediate family ever spoke to her grandmother about the war, or about the fate of her siblings or her parents. Instead, as is often the case with such extreme trauma, they avoided the subject entirely.

Gretchen knew the basic facts of her family history, but had never connected it to her own anxiety and depression. It was clear to me that the words she used and the feelings she described didn’t originate with her, but had in fact originated with her grandmother and the family members who lost their lives.

As I explained the connection, Gretchen listened intently. Her eyes widened and color rose in her cheeks. I could tell that what I said was resonating. For the first time, Gretchen had an explanation for her suffering that made sense to her.

To help her deepen her new understanding, I invited her to imagine standing in her grandmother’s shoes, represented by a pair of foam rubber footprints that I placed on the carpet in the center of my office. I asked her to imagine feeling what her grandmother might have felt after having lost all her loved ones. Taking it even a step further, I asked her if she could literally stand on the footprints as her grandmother, and feel her grandmother’s feelings in her own body. Gretchen reported sensations of overwhelming loss and grief, aloneness and isolation. She also experienced the profound sense of guilt that many survivors feel, the sense of remaining alive while loved ones have been killed.

In order to process trauma, it’s often helpful for clients to have a direct experience of the feelings and sensations that have been submerged in the body. When Gretchen was able to access these sensations, she realized that her wish to annihilate herself was deeply entwined with her lost family members. She also realized that she had taken on some element of her grandmother’s desire to die. As Gretchen absorbed this understanding, seeing the family story in a new light, her body began to soften, as if something inside her that had long been coiled up could now relax.

As with Jesse, Gretchen’s recognition that her trauma lay buried in her family’s unspoken history was merely the first step in her healing process. An intellectual understanding by itself is rarely enough for a lasting shift to occur. Often, the awareness needs to be accompanied by a deeply felt visceral experience. We’ll explore further the ways in which healing becomes fully integrated so that the wounds of previous generations can finally be released.

An Unexpected Family Inheritance

A boy may have his grandpa’s long legs and a girl may have her mother’s nose, but Jesse had inherited his uncle’s fear of never waking, and Gretchen carried the family’s Holocaust history in her depression. Sleeping inside each of them were fragments of traumas too great to be resolved in one generation.

When those in our family have experienced unbearable traumas or have suffered with immense guilt or grief, the feelings can be overwhelming and can escalate beyond what they can manage or resolve. It’s human nature; when pain is too great, people tend to avoid it. Yet when we block the feelings, we unknowingly stunt the necessary healing process that can lead us to a natural release.

Sometimes pain submerges until it can find a pathway for expression or resolution. That expression is often found in the generations that follow and can resurface as symptoms that are difficult to explain. For Jesse, the unrelenting cold and shivering did not appear until he reached the age that his Uncle Colin was when he froze to death. For Gretchen, her grandmother’s anxious despair and suicidal urges had been with her for as long as she could remember. These feelings became so much a part of her life that no one ever thought to consider that the feelings didn’t originate with her.

Currently, our society does not provide many options to help people like Jesse and Gretchen who carry remnants of inherited family trauma. Typically they might consult a doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist and receive medications, therapy, or some combination of both. But although these avenues might bring some relief, generally they don’t provide a complete solution.

Not all of us have traumas as dramatic as Gretchen’s or Jesse’s in our family history. However, events such as the death of an infant, a child given away, the loss of one’s home, or even the withdrawal of a mother’s attention can all have the effect of collapsing the walls of support and restricting the flow of love in our family. With the origin of these traumas in view, long-standing family patterns can finally be laid to rest. It’s important to note that not all effects of trauma are negative. In the next chapter we’ll learn about epigenetic changes—the chemical modifications that occur in our cells as a result of a traumatic event.

According to Rachel Yehuda, the purpose of an epigenetic change is to expand the range of ways we respond in stressful situations, which she says is a positive thing. “Who would you rather be in a war zone with?” she asks. “Somebody that’s had previous adversity [and] knows how to defend themselves? Or somebody that has never had to fight for anything?” Once we understand what biologic changes from stress and trauma are meant to do, she says, “We can develop a better way of explaining to ourselves what our true capabilities and potentials are.”

Viewed in this way, the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand not only can create a legacy of distress, but also can forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.

https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/an-excerpt-from-it-didnt-start-with-you-how-inherited-family-trauma-shapes-who-we-are-and-how-to-end-the-cycle-viking-april-2016-by-mark-wolynn/