What Do We Mean by Relationship Trauma?

May 30th, 2014 | Posted by Tian Dayton in ACoA | Addiction & Recovery | Adolescents | Adolescents' Issues | Family Issues | PTSD | Relationships | Trauma

(Note, continued training along with streaming video available on “The Workshop” on the www.tiandayton.com membership site)

Relationship trauma is the kind of emotional and psychological trauma that occurs within the context of relationships. We are biologically wired to seek close and ongoing connection. It’s nature’s way of insuring that parents stay committed enough to children to raise them to adulthood and children powerfully attach to their parents and stick close to them for safety and security. Without this powerful form of bonding, our species would become extinct, baby animals and human children would wander away from parent figures and parents would forget about their young. Our brains and bodies are wired to bond. Understanding relationship trauma requires understanding the depth and strength of these bonds. Because they are survival bonds, when they are ruptured, through mental illness, addiction or divorce, or left to languish without the care and constant nourishing required to meet the powerful attachment needs that are part of them, we may experience that rupture or neglect as traumatic.

Emotion came before thinking evolutionarily speaking; the limbic (feeling, sensing) brain evolved thousands of years before the prefrontal cortex (thinking, rational) brain. While our limbic system, sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain, processes emotions and sensory information, the prefrontal cortex, where we think, hope and dream, is that part of the brain that makes sense of that information and gives it a framework that is relevant to our lives and individual personalities. It’s the prefrontal cortex that allows us to conceive of such an abstract thing as a sense of self and a personal identity in relation to others.

What Happens in the Brain/Body When We Get Scared or Are Highly Stressed?

We have all the same instincts as an animal or reptile when we’re in a state of high stress. When we feel intense fear or looming danger, our limbic brain/body system kicks our fight/flight into gear, by flooding our muscles with blood supply and our bodies with adrenaline, so that we can make a fast exit or stand and defend ourselves. If we can do neither, which is so often the case in pain-filled homes, we freeze like a deer in the headlights and those body chemicals, meant to give us an extra energy boost, just boil up inside of us.
 Our prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, temporarily shuts down when we’re in a high fear state. Nature did not want us thinking about whether or not we should run from a saber-toothed tiger, she wanted us just to run, so she put first things first, action before thought.

In that moment when we are flooded with fear, we go on automatic, our animal unconscious takes over, while our thinking mind shuts off. This means that the thinking mind is not processing our experience, making sense of it and relating it to our sense of self.

Because the prefrontal cortex is not doing its job of elevating “experience” (read: emotions and sense impressions) to a conscious level and making sense of them, frightening or traumatic experiences do not get processed and recorded in the same way as ordinary experience. They have not been thought through, reflected on and placed into context. Rather they may have been repressed, “forgotten about,” or split out of consciousness. As a result of this, clients may not have a clear picture of just what is bothering them that they can easily talk about. And in the case of relationship trauma, we are often talking about repeated painful relationship problems or cumulative trauma that occurred over time rather than a one-time shocking event.

How the Thinking Mind Makes Sense of the Feeling Mind

There are few things more difficult for a survivor of trauma than to be asked the question, “Can you tell me about your trauma”? That’s because the part of the brain that organizes our experience and converts it into language, the prefrontal cortex, partially shuts down when we’re feeling threatened and therefore doesn’t process the experience as it normally would.

RTR (Relationship Trauma Repair see “The Workshop”) is designed so that memories, feelings, imagery, and sense impressions emerge slowly throughout an experiential, relational process. Through this experiential process the disowned affect and experience from the past, that may be driving a post traumatic stress reaction, can be elevated to a conscious level in the present, reflected on and incorporated into the overall framework of one’s life with new understanding attached to it. As yesterday’s limbic world emerges through action, with its varied emotions, urges, and sense impressions, the thinking mind can make sense of it. Painful memories are reframed as we see them through our more mature and enlightened mind of today.

Watching these DVDs allows feelings and urges to come forward into the present moment. They can then be further processed through journaling and guided imagery. Training in feeling management, relationship skills and emotional literacy, are built into this model.

Watch the DVDs, do journaling exercises and listen to guided imageries; these activates will teach skills of emotional literacy and emotional regulation.

The Dilemma of the Child

The natural trauma response is part of being animal or human, it was evolved to allow us to meet the chal- lenges of survival and stay alive—to flee for safety, stand and fight or freeze until danger passes while surviving in the natural world.

But what happens when the home itself becomes the proverbial saber-toothed tiger? Children cannot flee, where would they go? They cannot fight, they’d lose. So they do what they can, they freeze, they flee on the inside through shutting down or dissociating. Because our thinking freezes up when we’re scared, we tend to make senseof terrifying circumstances after the fact if at all. As children, we need some sane and caring grown up to help us understand what frightened us so that we can put it into some sort of normalizing framework for ourselves. But in homes where the parents themselves are the ones causing the stress, this normalizing all too often doesn’t take place. And if it’s the parent causing the stress, children lose access to the very person they would normally go to for comfort. So this becomes a double whammy for the child; not only are they feeling helpless and afraid, but the person they would normally go to for comfort and understanding is the one causing the stress to begin with. They are left to try to comfort themselves and make sense of the situation on their own.

All too often, the sense they make is laced with the magical thinking and natural egocentricity of the child, e.g., “I must be bad to upset my parent like this, after all they are telling me I am the one upsetting them, it must be all my fault. I need to change something that is terribly wrong with me, but no one is telling me what that is, so I will watch very carefully and try to behave in a way that doesn’t make them so angry.” This is codependency in the making as the child becomes increasingly hypervigilant, trying to divine the parent’s mood from their gait, the look on their face, the sound of their voice or the smell of their breath. Over time, when the child cannot seem to get it right in this home where rules and routines may change according to mood and alcohol or drug use, the child’s “trauma reasoning” may go something like this, “I just can’t get it right so I might just as well give up.”

The Trauma Set Up: How Fear Becomes Unconscious Body Memory

Our limbic system collects and categorizes information gathered by our senses such as sights, sounds,
smells, tastes and sensations. But it is our thinking brain that elevates that “data” to a conscious level and converts it into language or pictures that have meaning attached to them. Through this rational thinking, we integrate the disparate fragments of our experience into a coherent whole, a “picture” or “story” that we can record, remember, and recall. It’s through this rational thinking that we make sense of our selves and our selves in relation to others.

But what happens when that thinking doesn’t take place because the prefrontal cortex was temporarily frozen with fear? Where do all our feelings go if the thinking brain doesn’t help us to understand them? And what about the images, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures? Did these things never happen? Did they disappear? Did we make them up? Without the help of the prefrontal cortex, all of that emotional and sensorial information gets recorded by the limbic brain/body, but remains unprocessed and unconscious. Because the prefrontal cortex was not doing its job of elevating the information to a conscious level, those emotions and sense impressions are stored within us, but remain out of the reach of our conscious mind.

A Post-Traumatic Stress Reaction

Unfortunately however, out of sight does not necessarily mean out of mind. Our bodies can carry the imprint of our unprocessed, unconscious emotions and the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations that surrounded those feelings well after the fact, in what we refer to as “body memories.” These emotions held by our bodies can emerge days, months or even years later if they get restimulated or “triggered” by a circumstance or situation that has some sort of visual, sensorial, or relational “cue.” Even a raised eyebrow, shouting voices, or changes in vocal tone can cause adult child of trauma or emotional abuse to shiver with fear or want to run out of the room. In the case where there was significant abuse in the home, the powerful unprocessed emotions getting triggered can
 even lead to an uncontrollable urge to rage or become violent without our really understanding why. The ACOA syndrome can be seen as a post-traumatic stress reaction in which pain from childhood relationships is reemerging and being reenacted in adult relationships.

The Repetition Compulsion

Trauma tends to seer particular behavioral dynamics into place, in our emotional frozenness, we recreate a relational dynamic that has caused us pain, we get repeatedly “stuck” in the same emotional spot. We have a compulsion to repeat the same dynamic that originally caused us pain and left us feeling helpless, enraged, or numb. Because our feelings may be frozen or split off from consciousness, they cannot tell us what’s driving our behavior, that is, we cannot feel our way to understanding what we are doing. Our repetitive behavior, in other words, may be largely unconscious.

The dysfunctional dynamics that we repeat and repeat and repeat send up a red flag as to where our unre- solved pain might lie. Getting underneath the origins of that dynamic and understanding what complexes and conflicts might be driving the constant recreation of particular relationship dynamics, helps us to free ourselves of their emotional traction and power.

The Trauma Transference

Transference is when we get triggered by a certain behavior or circumstance in the present and have an overly large reaction to it that “contains” a lot of unresolved pain from the past. What happened to trigger us indeed may be occurring, but our reaction is more than is appropriate to the situation in the present: it is fueled by something that is still pulling us from the past. When we load up a present day dynamic with pain from the past, we make the present day dynamic nearly impossible to understand or resolve.

Actually seeing what we may be projecting or transferring on another person and lifting it off of them can be freeing and healing. It can allow us to see how much something from our past may have hurt us and begin to heal it and make what is going on in the present less impossible to deal with.

How This Triggered Past Gets Imported into the Present

One of the most significant triggers for childhood relationship trauma are adult relationships. If our partner, for example, gets angry or neglectful, similar experiences from childhood that we are not consciously aware of may become restimulated. We may become hurt or despondent beyond what the current situation merits because unresolved hurt from the past is getting mixed up with hurt in the present and making it feel more unbearable or intense than it might otherwise feel. But because the thinking brain always wants an explanation, we all too often look for the one nearest at hand, “my husband / wife is really awful,” or “if only my kid were better behaved I wouldn’t be so upset.” We really think that the only thing that is affecting us is what we can see right in front of us. We may remain totally out of touch with what from our own past may be informing the intensity of our emotional reactions. In other words, we don’t know that we don’t know. We project yesterday’s pain, anger, and confusion onto today’s relationships without knowing why, and over time this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, we actually recreate the fear and pain that we experienced as children in our adult interactions. To complicate matters further, we may see the solution to our problems as continually changing the situation we’re in rather than examining what, inside of us, might be contributing to recreating painful relationship dynamics.

“If only I had a better house, spouse, or boss I wouldn’t feel so helpless, angry and alone. I better change them so I can feel less lonely and stressed.” But more often than not, the real change that needs to happen is within us, we need to change our own history by revisiting it either through hearing someone talking about a scene we identify with, watching a psychodrama that feels all too familiar (the DVDs in this model or group role plays), or doing a role-play ourselves that allows us to temporarily step into and reinhabit a moment from our past so that we can change, not the actual incident or relationship dynamic, but how we experience it. When we do some intentional healing process such as this, we are able to see the same situation with new, informed, and adult eyes. We understand that we were not the cause of the problem after all, that our shame and guilt over having been a bad and blamed child was perhaps misplaced, that it was simply an immature child’s attempt at making sense of a scary situation by taking on too much blame. We may also see that our parents were fallible people after all, not bad but perhaps stressed, immature and without resources themselves; that they were in above their heads.

The Emotional Body

Our emotions are physical, they are processed in our bodies by our limbic system. That’s why action and emotion are so closely linked. Because we experience our emotions within our bodies, feelings are often accompanied by an urge to act.

The limbic system is the brain/body system that governs mood, bonding, libido, appetite, and sleep cycles. The limbic system records and categorizes all of our sense information like sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and so forth and double codes them with the emotions and gestures or movements that we associate with that experience. That’s why our emotional memories so often get triggered into consciousness by an old familiar smell, sound, sight, taste, gesture, or sensation. The sensory cue, whether it be the smell of a pipe or cookies baking, an old song, a soft summer breeze, or facial expression triggers a flood of emotions in us. Those “sense memories” accompanied by the emotions double coded with them, can either wrap us in a wonderful reverie of recollections or send us straight through the ceiling, depending upon the emotional content of the situation we are recalling. They can make us want to fight, run out of the room, or cuddle close and be cozy and affectionate.

Living in Emotional Extremes: A Disregulated Limbic System

Trauma, however, can disregulate the limbic system. (I go into in detail in my book Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance and The ACoA Trauma Syndrome.)

Disregulation in our limbic system can lead to an impaired ability to regulate our emotions and can manifest as depression, anxiety, mood disorders, sleep problems. It can contribute to an inability to regulate and balance our emotions, appetite, intimacy, and sexual drive (libido).

When our limbic system, which is responsible for balancing our moods, becomes disregulated, we may lose some of our ability to stay balanced or to “self-regulate”. We may have trouble staying emotionally balanced. When we get upset, for example, we may go from 0–10 or 10–0 with no speed bumps in between. From intense emotion to shutting down, we have trouble living in 4, 5, and 6.

When we cannot balance our emotions ourselves, we may look to a substance to do that for us, like drugs or alcohol. Or we may use food, sex, or a compulsive form of bonding to create a temporary or false sense of “safety” and “balance.” Needless to say this is a slippery slope that can lead to self medication.

Biology and the Endless Wheel of Trauma and Addiction

Trauma: Emotional and limbic disregulation can also lead to the body becoming symptomatic or to somatic disturbances and upsetting body sensations. Fear or intense emotions can set in motion heart-pounding, queasiness, sweating, tightness of muscles, or shortness of breath. This rise in disturbing body sensations can trigger disturbing emotions and trauma imagery that is stored in the mind, scenes from past situations where we felt helpless or scared can race through our minds as flashbacks or even nightmares. This can become a vicious circle in which the body and mind play off of each other, causing a negative synergy in which the disturbing emotions and imagery trigger disturbing body sensations and vice versa. This can drop trauma survivors into a confusing emotional, psychological and physiological “black hole” that they can have trouble finding their way out of and can contribute to feeling scared, helpless and disempowered all over again.

Addiction: Drugs and alcohol, for the trauma survivor, can provide a way to quiet the mind and the body that they can have control over; a sort of self-administered medication. Certain behaviors, particularly those that trigger a rise in dopamine levels in the brain, like eating (particularly sugar, white flour, and fatty foods) or sexual acting out, can have a similar “soothing” (but addictive) effect. The more these substances or behaviors are used to quiet and calm unwanted feelings and sensations, the more dependent we become on them and the more convinced we become that we cannot calm down or feel OK without them.

Trauma and Addiction: Over time, greater amounts of the drug or acting out behaviors are needed to reach the same “high.” Thus the addiction takes hold, the PTSD symptoms become worse not better and lives become unmanageable for all concerned. In this manner individuals may develop insidious multiple addictions. Gruesome twosomes like food and alcohol or sex and drugs or gambling and alcohol, are all potent combinations that make it difficult to recognize what the primary addiction or issue is, or exactly how to treat it. After all, we have to eat, right? However, there are ways of eating that trigger spikes in blood sugar levels that in turn trigger cravings. And because drinking also affects blood sugar and lowers inhibitions, gorging on sugary and fatty foods becomes easier and more mindless. Though the individual may not appear to be eating or drinking to unmanageable excess, they are able to manipulate their own body chemistry and maintain addictive levels of feel-good body chemicals by a combination of drinking alcohol and using food to get a dopamine high. This manipulation of one’s own body chemicals can also be achieved through maintaining adrenaline highs. Adrenaline can be as addictive to the brain as heroin, activities like constant rushing, overworking, high-risk behaviors or frenetic exercise can all create spikes in adrenaline. In all of these cases, behavior can come to mirror
that of an addict and thinking, feeling, and behavior get
 out of whack.

In recovery we learn to manipulate our body chemistry as well. Part of feeling good and maintaining a good mood lies in intentional “serotonin management”. We need to actively adopt activities that stimulate serotonin, one of the body’s natural “antidepressants” or mood regulators. Comfortable exercise, sharing
emotions, journaling, meditation,
 relaxation, guided imagery, and a
 relationship network all stimulate
serotonin to enter the blood stream. Encourage clients to try it themselves. 
When they are feeling moody, ask them
 to take a walk with friends and share 
feelings or journal and then share or listen
 to a guided imagery and go into a relaxed and meditative state.

The Importance of Healing Experientially

As J. L. Moreno, the father of psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy said, long before his time, “the body remembers what the mind forgets.” Over the last three decades, neuroscience has under-scored the importance of incorporating the body into the healing process when working with emotional and psychological trauma. We need to do more than learn to tell the story of our lives. We need to feel the story of our lives in order to heal it. Trauma shuts feeling down, recovery wakes feeling up. That’s why we need solid recovery supports in place such as twelve-step meetings, affiliative groups, therapy, exercise, good nutrition, and healthy forms of self-soothing. Whether we’re talking about recovery from addiction or trauma or a combination of both, we need a strong healing network that’s available seven days a week in order to help us to learn to hold and manage the intense emotions that recovery will naturally restimulate without acting out or self-medicating. One or two times a week in one-to-one therapy is not enough, in my experience. Emotions aren’t that neat, they come up at the most inopportune times and need to be processed more regularly, at least in early recovery.

Research in attachment theory and bonding help us to understand why it is also so crucial that a therapeutic process be relational. Psychodrama’s triadic system of psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy provides a full framework for body, mind, and relational healing. Psychodrama is a role play method that allows us to recreate our role relationships so that we can explore them both from our perspective and, through role reversal, through the eyes of the other. Sociometry is the science of applied group dynamics and how the exploration and healing of those dynamics can be made experiential in group therapy. Moreno developed a method that allows the body to move, to feel and to act; a multi-sensory experience of feeling and healing, where we use all of our senses, where we feel first then struggle toward the intellectual word or words that best define what we’re experiencing in our hearts, minds and bodies. A relational process in which we not only try to talk about what hurt us but we witness the stories of others with whom we may identify. Where we can hear them struggle to share the same muffled emotions that we too may be carrying, or see as they try to take some of the actions that we, too, have longed to take whether curling up and hiding, running or embracing. Experiential healing provides a process where we can allow the deeper layers of our own experience to unravel before our eyes and make sense of them, layer by layer, as they emerge both within ourselves and in relation to others.

Contrary to what many might think, this material does not necessarily come pouring forth in treatment; it is slow and painstaking work. Often times, as painful memories emerge, the body will react before the client is even aware of what they are feeling, they may shake or shiver, get a pounding headache; their gut might tighten or their throat go dry. It is up to the therapist to read these signals and use them as information in working with the client and to help the client to learn to recognize them in themselves. The trauma survivor may initially come forward tentatively, frightened of retaliation for even thinking what they may perceive to be disloyal or subversive thoughts. Feeling what they have never felt can feel dangerous to them.

Simply saying the words that were never spoken or feeling emotions that were never felt, without shut- ting down, acting out, or self medicating, can be deeply healing for the person who carries frozen or denied pain. This fairly straightforward process can allow them to make sense of themselves and what drives and defines them in their life and relationships. Even shaking off tension in the body while doing experiential exercises or watching a DVD and sharing emotions that come up can result in healing and relief for the person who longs or needs to get in touch with the “stories” and feelings they may be carrying unconsciously. As these feelings come forward, the thinking that was frozen in place starts to come forward, too. The body moves and the mind and heart follow. Identifying that “I want to run, to fight and defend myself, to collapse . . . I want to talk, to hug or to be held” can help individuals to come out from the shadowy depths of their unconscious selves, into the sunlight. This can be a confusing and disequalibrating process. After sharing with moving clarity about something that they have long held in silence, for example, group members often say things like, “Did that make any sense?” or “I feel like I’m babbling.” Quite the contrary, those listening are often riveted, sitting on the edge of their seats as they quiver with identification and emotion. This kind of “aha” moment is healing not only for the one sharing, but for all those watching, who suddenly see that they, too, may have such eloquence and intelligence in their pain. We see such moments in the stories that are a part of these DVDs.

Website | + posts

Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP, is the Director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute and the Program Development for Breathe Life Healing Centers and executive editor of the Journal of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She serves on the board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and is the author of 15 books. Dr. Dayton is the creator of the Internet's first interactive self-help website, www.emotionexplorer.com. Learn more at www.tiandayton.com.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 Both comments and pings are currently closed.