Developmental Trauma

This post is in response to the following comment in my trauma healing group: “If you experienced developmental trauma, it is not possible to heal, your trauma is written in stone, but if you experienced a shock trauma, you are likely to make a full recovery.

I don’t agree with this assertion, but there are elements of truth woven into it.

As a survivor of prolonged developmental trauma, I understand the feeling that survivors can never return to a baseline, because they may have been born without one to return to, or it may have been obliterated in early childhood.

For example, my mother tried to kill herself multiple times when I was in utero. Not having succeeded, I was born dead at 7 months in utero, due to a botched self-induced abortion. I was resuscitated by my father who found me on the bathroom floor. By the time I was born, I had survived a hostile womb, a mother who smoked and drank and took drugs, and who was so disturbed that she didn’t value life. Any normative baseline was already destroyed.

Despair vs Hope

In my trauma healing journey, there were decades of unhelpful therapy modalities, and then somatic therapies that finally started the process of safely feeling and processing all of my awful traumas. That journey was, to be honest, terrifying at times. For most of my adult life, I felt broken beyond repair. That my trauma was just too great for any therapist or modality to actually work. The despair I felt at times was intense.

I have been working with trauma survivors for years now, and I see that despair in majority of them as well. Survivors who experience dissociation struggle to stay attuned in somatic therapies, so it can take years of preparation and safety and stabilization before they can do the hard work of somatic therapies. The length of time this preparation takes is often construed by survivors as proof of their utter hopeless brokenness.

However, the truth is that survivors of complex trauma CAN heal.

My trauma healing group has seen 1000’s of survivors across the globe enter somatic therapies, and in a few years they graduate and get on with their reconstructed lives, enjoying their newly regulated nervous systems, self-love and self-esteem.

I am one of those. The core of my self (my soul) is the same, but most of what I would have viewed as my “experienced self” has been reconstructed. I went from self-hatred to really liking myself. For decades I believed, in my deepest heart, that I was unlovable and couldn’t imagine actually liking myself. I went from being stuck in thick emotional mud up to my earlobes, to the day in EMDR where I saw myself stepping onto dry ground. The utter miracle of that feeling of solid ground under my feet. Wow! I will never forget that. It was the day I knew that all of my hard work was paying off.

Because trauma healing is a relatively new area of research, there is a lot of confusion in the cultural conversation about what is possible. Let’s unpack this topic together.

The Absence of Developmental Trauma: a Good Enough Infancy and Childhood

Let’s define what we mean as good enough:

  • nurturing and attunement in the womb through childhood
  • a secure base from which to explore his/her environment
  • reasonable boundaries and limit setting
  • fostering the child’s development to enable the child to fulfill his/her full potential
  • unpleasant experiences are manageable, and do not overwhelm the nervous system, and are not chronic
  • they experience love, recognition and support in the face of pain, upset and loss

Good enough parenting delivered consistently over this critical period enables attachment and fosters the child’s sense of basic security, which is essential for subsequent mental health and self esteem. Once acquired, these attributes constitute a firm foundation for the rest of childhood and adult life.

Barring special needs, physical injury, or genetic factors, this child will tend to have a nervous system and an inner emotional life that is fairly well balanced. They will know that they matter, they will be aware of their needs and will willingly accept the meeting of those needs.

All of these factors lead to resilience, which is a buffer against the vicissitudes of life.

Shock Trauma

Shock trauma results from feeling overwhelmed, usually by just one event. The event is usually sudden and unexpected with a distinct beginning and end, and it usually is over relatively quickly. It abruptly interrupts the flow of life and you feel frozen in the event.

Shock Trauma can include events like:

  • falls and accidents
  • assault
  • near drowning
  • natural disaster
  • invasive medical procedure.

If a child who experiences a good enough childhood grows up to experience some sort of intense shock trauma, they do indeed stand a good chance of being able to return to something that resembles their previous baseline of stability, with the help of somatic therapies like EMDR, Brain Spotting or Somatic Experiencing.

One of the key elements in this story is the fact that this person has a solid previous baseline that they can reference in their healing process. Their body-mind system knows how to feel okay and be okay, because it has lots of experience in doing just that.

The Developmental Trauma Picture

Developmental trauma results from events that are so overwhelming to a child that his/her nervous system cannot mature in an age appropriate manner. The disruption in her nervous system is often great enough to cause long-lasting changes and delays in physical maturation, behavior and capacity to think, handle emotions and to socialize with others. If the abuse is severe, and depending on the age of the child at the time of the abuse, the child’s brain structure may be physically damaged.

Some childhood experiences that can lead to developmental trauma include:

  • neglect
  • prenatal or perinatal traumaoss
  • loss of a significant person during the early childhood years
  • physical, sexual or emotional abuse

Someone with Complex PTSD from developmental trauma does not have a solid previous baseline to refer to. Those with significant developmental trauma may have had periods of their lives where they looked fairly okay on the outside, and they may have even believed that their inner experiences were normative. Without a solid baseline to contrast current experiences with, it is difficult for these survivors to know that what they are experiencing is nervous system dysregulation. In most cases, through significant unconscious mental gymnastics, they were able to find a way to hide from most of the pain and assimilated drastic coping mechanisms to cover for the disruptions that were experiencing.

Newcomers to the healing process, often feel as though healing from complex trauma means trying to find, and return to, a constantly disappearing mirage of a non-existent baseline. This breeds despair. But the truth is, we don’t want to go back to how it was before, because the way it was was built on negative feedback loops, exaggerated responses, dysregulation and exhausting coping mechanisms. There was a lot of suppression, confusion and hidden pain. Various oddities in our feelings and behaviors that made life difficult for us and for those around us.

Reframing Our Viewpoint and Vocabulary

What if we viewed recovery from developmental trauma as one of reconstruction, reintegration and regulation, rather than reinstatement?

Recovery from shock trauma (when there was a solid foundation) can reasonably be compared to recovery from a physical illness or injury. Reclaiming that which was compromised or lost.

Healing developmental trauma is different. It requires that we go back and uncover, question, and shed fundamental beliefs that helped us survive, but keep us from thriving. It is a path of psychological growth, spiritual enlightenment, emotional healing, and physical regulation. So it’s not really a “healing from”, but rather a “growing through”.

When a young tree has spikes driven through it, yet continues to grow and ultimately thrives, it has not recovered from the spikes. “Recovery from” implies that the assaulting element is gone, or so vastly reduced in size and scope that you can’t see or feel any evidence of it. But you can still see the spikes in the base of the tree, years and decades later. The tree did not recover from the invasion of those spikes, it grew around them. The tree was permanently shaped by the presence of the spikes, and they are a permanent part of the tree’s experience. But the tree learned to grow and thrive even with those invading objects present.

In developmental trauma recovery, we face the “spikes” of terror, shame, violation or abandonment. We can process them through somatic therapies and install new beliefs that counter those old ones. We learn how to grow through them, how to dig deep and find spiritual and psychological resources we never knew were there. We learn to make distinctions about what is real and what are just remnants of old feelings that feel real but are simply not valid in present time and space. We learn to make distinctions that most people never have any reason to know are even possible.

Through this process of growing through, we can develop skills and insights that it would be very difficult for someone to develop who never had the experience of developmental trauma. There is a lot of potential. And a lot is possible. Post traumatic growth is one of the most exhilarating experiences. One that I am grateful to be experiencing. I stand here to say, “You are full of possibility and potential. You can grow through. You can use your pain as a platform. You can turn your mess into a message.”

Where are you in this healing journey? I’d love to hear your story.


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