What Happened to You?

I have been listening to the CD-audio version of What Happened to You?  – Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.  In the audio, the creators Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, share their experiences and insights – Bruce from a neuroscience and clinical perspective and Oprah from the stories she has gleaned from thousands of interviews of traumatised people.  The audio represents the crystallisation of ideas resulting from an ongoing conversation between the two creators over more than thirty years.   It highlights the complexity of trauma and the multi-faceted nature of effective healing from trauma.

In listening to the audio, you automatically explore, “what happened to you?” in your own early childhood.  The prevalence of trauma and its impacts suggests that most of us in some way experienced one of more adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  Every day you hear of traumatic events globally as well as locally  – such as the Sea World helicopter collision on the Gold Coast.  Survivors and witnesses, as well as grieving relatives and friends, would have been traumatised by the accident.  Some of the survivors have to experience the trauma of multiple surgeries as well.

We are frequently exposed to the traumatic experiences of others, including prominent people who describe their upbringing and provide insights into trauma and its impacts by way of their memoirs.   For example, Bertie Blackman, singer and artist, writes in her memoir, Bohemian Negligence, that she was sexually abused at a young age by a “friend of the family”.  Tove Ditlevsen, famous Danish poet and author, explained in her memoir, Childhood, Youth and Dependency, that she had a violent mother who beat her indiscriminately and was unpredictable, inflexible and critical.   Tove’s dream of becoming a poet was a source of belittlement by others, and disbelief and denigration from her parents and beloved brother.  She was also ostracized at school because she was seen to be “different”.

What happened to you or did not happen for you?

Bruce and Oprah explain that the more we understand the nature of trauma and its many forms and manifestations, we are better able to be compassionate towards others and ourselves when we observe aberrant behaviour on their part or our own.  This can lead to forgiveness of others and ourselves, as well as healing from the impacts of trauma which are pervasive and influence our relationships and communication.    

Oprah and Bruce explain that trauma shapes “our brains, our biases, our systems” – it influences our worldview and the way we perceive ourselves.  A teenager, for example, who experiences roughness and brutality by a policeman when innocent or engaged in some trivial misdemeanour, will view police as “fearful”, not trustworthy and cruel. This traumatic experience builds an implicit bias on the teenager’s part in respect of all police.  Our experience (or lack of direct experience) of people of a different race or nationality to our own can shape our biases.  These biases can be confirmed by observing non-conformist behaviour or seeing images of adverse events involving people of that race or nationality.

Our own trauma is unique in that traumatic experiences and their impact vary from individual to individual in terms of their nature, intensity, diversity and duration.  We each bring to the table of life imprinting from our early life experiences that shape who we are and how we respond under stress.  People with unresolved trauma have “sensitised stress responses” which can be manifested in overreaction, aggression, physical withdrawal, anxiety or dissociation.

Bruce and Oprah make the point that our modern day living conflicts with what is necessary to achieve healing from trauma.  They highlight the emphasis today on superficial relations and communications (e.g. selfies, likes, texts) at the expense of reciprocal relationships involving conversation, sharing, storytelling and empathy.  They discuss the “sensory cacophony of the modern world” – creating discordant sounds, confronting images and information overload.  Oprah and Bruce maintain too, like Johann Hari, that the disconnection and isolation of modern living contribute substantially to the growth of depression, anxiety and suicide.

In contrast, Bruce recounts his experience of Māori culture through an intensive immersion over two days – experiencing firsthand their holistic healing approach and the centrality of relationships characterised by “rich relational density [versus superficiality] and developmental density [involving ages ranging from babies to the aged]”.  Given the nature of trauma, Bruce argues for the development of “stable, supportive, patient and consistent” relationships to offset the impact of developmental relationships that were unpredictable, inconsistent, hurtful, demeaning or neglectful

Reflection

If we reflect on our actions and reactions to daily events and interactions with other people, we can begin to see patterns in our behaviour, e.g., avoidance of conflict, the need to please, or implicit bias in relation to particular groups of people.  Gaining an understanding of trauma, its impacts and conditioned behavioural responses, will enable us to establish causal links between what has happened to us (or “not happened for us”) and how we behave in specific situations, e.g., when criticised, threatened or praised.  Memoirs can be instructive in this regard.

If we consciously grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can gain the self-awareness necessary to understand ourselves and to develop loving kindness towards ourselves and others.  If we also consciously try to build and sustain supportive, enduring relationships we can move along the path to self-regulation and healing from trauma.  These healing relationships can extend beyond our immediate family to colleagues, friends, our extended family and interest groups (such as hobby, book, faith or aged-based groups).

Bruce and Oprah reinforce the importance of the mind/body connection and highlight the value of movement such as dance, Tai Chi, movement meditation, exercise and reconnection with nature for healing from trauma.  They also advocate bodily-oriented approaches such as massage, somatic meditation, and resting in your body/breath. There are many resources available to help us heal from trauma and develop resilience to face life’s challenges.  Sounds True, for example, offers a Healing Trauma Program involving some of the world’s top trauma recovery experts.  They also provide a Trauma and the Embodied Brain course led by Bonnie Badenoch, author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Healing from Trauma

Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry address the issue of healing from trauma in their book, What Happened to You?  In a chapter on Coping and Healing, they explore the impact of relational deficit in the early years of a child’s life; what neglect and parental conflict does to a child’s development, their worldview and their stress response; and the importance of an understanding, nurturing and patient carer/parent/therapist for healing to occur.   In the process, they discuss, in depth, the nature of neglect, differences in the way individuals are impacted by trauma, behavioural manifestations of adverse childhood experiences, and the road to healing, including creating a new worldview.

This chapter of their book is very rich with stories, insights, principles and personal disclosure by Oprah – disclosures that are enriched by observations by Bruce on her life experiences.  Oprah, herself, and the vast work that she does in the area of trauma healing, is an exemplar for coping with, and healing from, trauma.  What she has learned through her own life experience and ongoing discussions with Bruce over many years, has led to her establishing the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in South Africa. 

The emotional environment in early childhood

Bruce maintains that the quality of the emotional climate in early childhood impacts our worldview and our stress response.  If there is stability, nurturing and predictability, our brains and our behaviour can develop.  If the opposite exists, this has an adverse impact on our childhood development and our capacity as an adult to deal with challenges and stress.  We can develop the mindset that we are not lovable or not worthy of people’s attention.    Dr. Gabor Maté utilises a process he calls “compassionate inquiry” to unearth these negative self-stories – vestiges of an early life lived in an environment of neglect.

Bruce highlights the fact that different, deficit emotional environments can result in very different traumatic effects.  He illustrates this point by an in-depth comparison of two boys who manifested their traumatic upbring in contrasting ways.  His explanation shows clearly why one boy became fearful and aggressive while the other “had no feeling at all” and engaged in threats and thefts.  His description of their respective adverse childhood experiences and their differentiated impacts brings into sharp focus the key role that quality relationships play in early childhood.

This discussion of the differences in personal development of the two boys led Bruce to assert that an important consideration is not only “what happened to you?” but also “what didn’t happen for you?” – in terms of the behaviour of a parent/carer who provides undivided attention (in lieu of distracted attention), gentle touch (rather than physical abuse), consistent nurturing (instead of an on/off approach) and regular reassurance (instead of a belittling attitude).  Not only does the quality of relationships in early childhood impact brain development but also the development of social and motor skills.   Bruce contends that “relationships are the key to healing from trauma”  because trauma often results from deficient relationships.

An environment of conflict

Bruce notes that if you are a young child and you are in an environment of parental conflict, you have limited options.  You are too young to flee and unable to fight as you are easily overpowered and may draw physical attacks from either or both parents.  Often in this situation, a child will dissociate – retreat to their inner world. Dissociation becomes a problem when it is prolonged or becomes a habituated response to everyday challenges – this can lead to what is termed a dissociative disorder.  I can relate to dissociation as a stress response  as my parents had frequent verbal and physical conflicts over my father’s alcoholism and gambling – my mother would berate him over his misuse of our family income.  This would sometimes escalate into a physical attack on my mother, on a number of occasions this put her in hospital. 

When I was young, my natural response would be to dissociate from the  traumatic experience, as flight or fight was not an option – fight was out of the questions as my father was a very successful professional boxer.  However, as I reached the age of 12, I used to get on my pushbike and ride into the night as fast as I could (flight response), hoping that when I returned the conflict would be over.  The physical exertion of bike riding at speed served to release some of my pent-up tension and fear from the conflict.

Both Bruce and Oprah make the point that there is a positive side to dissociation in that it could be a life-saving response in some situations but is also part and parcel of what each of us do every day – e.g., day dream.  Bruce contends that the “capacity to control dissociation behaviour is very powerful” – it underpins our capacity for reflection and focus and to achieve a “flow state”.   I experienced  a number of personal traumas in my early childhood and adulthood, including a serious care accident in the family car when our car was hit on the side by another car, rolled a number of times, went over a 10 foot embankment, and came to rest on its hood.  I have learned to control my dissociative behaviour and, as a result,  developed high levels of reflective cognition and focused behaviour – reflected in my PhD, Professorship and this blog (this is my 700th  published blog post for my Grow Mindfulness blog).

Reflection

“What Happened to You” by Bruce and Oprah stimulated a lot of reflection for me and in some instances, “flashbacks” as well.  I began to appreciate more how my five years spent as a contemplative monk (from ages 18 to 22) served to provide me with a highly structured, stable, reflective and meditative environment with high quality relationships that together enabled me to self-regulate after a traumatic upbringing in a conflicted parental environment.  In my upbringing, my mother’s unconditional love and support offset to some degree my father’s (PTSD-induced) behaviour.

I am sure my period of development in an environment of daily silence, meditation, prayer and study helped me to achieve a degree of peace and tranquility (sometimes punctuated by moments of panic over my deteriorating home situation). As I grew in mindfulness, I was able to develop resilience, a positive mindset and the ability to find refuge in meditation.

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Image by Luisella Planeta LOVE PEACE 💛💙 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

The Wounds of Trauma and Their Impact on Relationships and Communication

In their book, What Happened to You?, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry, provide a chapter where they bring together an understanding of the wounds of trauma and their impact on relationships, communication between people and physical illness.  Throughout, they stress the mind-body connection and how the brain processes experiences.   Bruce’s explanations are lucid and, together with Oprah, he illuminates the ideas and concepts with stories and examples.  Oprah draws on her own traumatic upbringing and thousands of interviews with traumatised individuals of all ages; Bruce draws on his research and clinical practice, especially with traumatised children.  The book reflects decades of experience and the ongoing conversations between the authors. 

The book is incredibly rich in ideas, insights and stories and I found that I was better able to absorb its content by listening to the CD-Audio version which is narrated by the authors as an everyday conversation.  The interchange of ideas and experiences adds to the clarity of their explanations of the wounds of trauma and the elucidation of their impact in individual cases.  With the audio version of the book, Bruce also provides a series of diagrams that illustrate the conceptual framework behind the book and the shared understandings.

Understanding the wounds of trauma

Bruce contends that trauma-related symptoms are often overlooked – they are assumed to result from a functional breakdown or represent psychosomatic illness.  He maintains that the symptoms of the wounds are often “dismissed, missed and misunderstood” by doctors. He illustrates this by sharing the heart-rending story of Chiara who suffered from Diabetes and at age 16 was admitted to hospital in an unconscious state resulting from “diabetic coma”.  His explanation of how doctors tried unsuccessfully to treat her highlighted the doctors’ blindspot in relation to  the wounds of trauma.  Bruce explains how he achieved an effective diagnosis of Chiara’s condition by identifying the trigger for her traumatic response and using his understanding of neuroscience to develop a treatment protocol implemented by the doctors.

Bruce explains that different physical symptoms – such as chest pains, headaches, abdominal pain and fainting – are all potentially related to a “sensitised stress response” resulting from trauma.  When I heard him explain “fainting” as one potential impact of trauma memory, I recalled how often I used to faint in Church in my childhood – simultaneously, I was experiencing the trauma of a violent, alcoholic father suffering from PTSD as a result of war service and imprisonment in Changi.  My doctor had no explanation for these fainting spells.  However, at the time, my home environment was heavily charged with parental conflict – unfortunately, none of us understood trauma, PTSD and the full extent of the wounds and impact of trauma, including addiction.

The impact of trauma on communication and relationships

Bruce draws on the concept of “sequential processing” of the brain to explain the impact of trauma on communication and relationships.  Basically, the concept involves recognising that all sensory experience is firstly processed by the “lower brain”.  Part of this processing involves matching the new input with “the catalogues of stored memories of the past”.  The degree of matching with a traumatic experience determines whether or not a maladaptive stress response occurs.   The smart part of our brain, the Cortex, can be shut down when the perception of risk (as a result of current or prior trauma) is very high – so the “thinking brain” is drowned out by the “survival brain”.

Bruce illustrates this by sharing the story of 3 year old Joseph who witnessed the abduction of his 11 year old sister, which resulted in her murder.  At the time, Bruce was working with the FBI Child Abduction and Serial Killer Taskforce.  He discovered that the FBI officers were unable to get any useful explanation from Joseph and he was asked to work with the child to try to find out information necessary to find the perpetrator and enable a conviction.  Bruce provides a very detailed explanation of how he went about winning the boy’s trust and gaining the necessary information for conviction of the murderer.

As part of Bruce’s explanation of his process with Joseph, he discusses the impact of the “power differential” between the FBI Officers/himself as a stranger and the 3 year old traumatised child.   He explained that when you are the person with all the power, you can be unaware of it or its potential impact.  This fact has been brought home to me many times in co-facilitating the Confident People Management Program over 15 years (involving 2,000 managers in multiple programs and locations).  What we have found is that the majority managers on the program (mainly drawn from the public sector) are totally unaware of their power to shape the team culture.  At the outset of the program we say to them, “What you say, how you say it, what you do, how you do it and what you omit to do, shapes team culture hour in and hour out every day” – we add “whether you are conscious of it or not”.  

Bruce’s discussion of the impact of trauma on communication in relationships highlights the wisdom of this advice that we have been giving to managers.  He explains that the goal of communication is to achieve a “Cortex to Cortex” transmission.  However, on both sides of the communication (giver and receiver), rational thoughts are first processed through “the emotional filters of the lower brain”.  Hence, the message can be distorted in its transmission and reception.  He explains lucidly that “our facial expression, tone of voice and words are turned into neural activity by the other person’s senses” – they can trigger a traumatised response or build the relationship with staff through developing trust, mutual respect and safety.  A by-product of this approach is the development of a sense of agency in the manager themselves.   One of the participants on our program provided concrete evidence of the wounds of trauma and their impact when she explained that her current highly nervous state resulted from a manager shouting at her in front of other staff – this experience was traumatic for her, the impact being compounded by the power differential (and possibly stored memories of like, past adverse experiences).

Reflection

Many researchers and therapists talk about the wounds of trauma and their impact on relationships and communication.  However, Bruce and Oprah in What Happened to You, “join the dots” and “pull it all together” from their decades of experience and ongoing conversations and collaboration.  They enrich the meaning of the neuroscience concepts and insights with relatable stories that clearly illustrate the points they are making.

At one stage when talking about the power differential, Bruce mentioned that it may take 10 or more sessions before a client will feel safe and be prepared to “share some of their most emotionally difficult experiences” or acknowledge their contribution to those experiences.  This discussion reminded me of my experience mentoring a manager who was traumatised on a daily basis by a narcissistic Director who continuously belittled him by publicly calling out his “mistakes” in front of his staff  (sometimes the “mistakes were not his, but the Director’s).  It took me 7 coaching sessions of 90 minutes each over a few months before he admitted that he was defensive in his communication.  He said he experienced the insight as a “blow to his stomach” – an expression which showed the embodiment of his resistance resulting from the wounds of ongoing trauma and their impact on his feelings of safety while working with me (the “power differential” was at play in a major way as I had been engaged as a consultant by the Director to coach the “inefficient” manager).  I have come to realise that in this interaction, I was an external consultant with a high degree of expert, personal and referent power – I was the one that was in a position of power, what Bruce describes as “at the top of the power differential”.

There is so much that plays out in our daily interactions that we are unaware of, especially if we are in a power position.  We can grow in mindfulness and self-awareness through personal study, reflection and mindfulness practices such as meditation.

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Image by Wilfried Thünker from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Reflections on Personal Trauma  

In their book, What Happened to You?, Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey discuss sources of trauma and their impact on people’s lives.  Bruce draws on extensive research as a neuroscientist and years of clinical practice as a child psychologist.  Oprah explains that her insights are drawn from more than 50,000 interviews conducted over a lifetime of discussing trauma with people of all ages. 

I’ve been listening to the CD-Audio version of the book and it is quite fascinating to hear the interaction between the authors – Oprah and a world-famous brain and trauma expert – as they share personal stories and understanding about patterns in human behaviour catalysed by trauma.   The focus is not on “what’s wrong with you” but “what happened” for you.  After listening to the first few chapters focused on the biological, psychological and behavioural impacts of trauma, I thought it appropriate to share reflections on my own life stimulated by hearing the conversations between Bruce and Oprah. 

The conversations are very rich with personal stories, case studies and scientific insights (illustrated through very clear and cogently explained diagrams provided in PDF format).  They spontaneously stimulate personal recall and reflections and I have attempted to capture some of my insights about my personal experience in the following: 

Striving for balance 

Bruce and Oprah highlight the impact of trauma in creating a “distorted worldview” and throwing our overall stress response system “out of balance”.  This loss of balance results in “emotional dysregulation” and dysfunctional behaviour.  The stress response of a previously traumatised individual is “sensitive” to cues that are perceived as threatening and can lead to maladaptive behaviour because of distorted perception of the cue, e.g., a sound, sight, smell. 

I spent 18 months in an orphanage owing to my mother’s serious illness and my father’s posting overseas.  I was about four years old at the time and I recall that when I first left the orphanage I used to be terrified of the moon and adopted evasive behaviour – having not seen the moon before as a toddler.  My younger sister ran away from school in Year One because she was traumatised by the period that we spent in the orphanage separated from each other (boys and girls were kept apart).     

Oprah and Bruce make the point that we are continuously trying to seek balance in our life – we attempt to offset the pain of loneliness or the pain of fear by seeking “rewards”.  These rewards can take many forms but often lead to addiction – to drugs, alcohol, food, or aberrant behaviour.  The need-to-please is but one example of this ineffectual “seeking rewards” and I can identify that set of  behaviours in my early twenties.    

Bruce points out that the real rewards lie in realising our personal “rhythm” and achieving connectedness (and associated sense of belonging).  He maintains that each of us has a personal rhythm that is different for different individuals.  He mentions the response of a young child to behaviour designed to achieve a relaxing rhythm – we can relate to the child that needs to be hugged to “settle”, another that needs to be pushed in a pram, while a third child has to go for a drive in a car before they will settle (or alternatively, as I found with one of my young daughters, avoiding car trips and walking instead).   

Bruce suggests that each of us can increase our sense of calm and reduce agitation if we engage in activities that align with our personal rhythm – for me, that means engaging in the reflective activity of writing or walking, the smooth motion of Tai Chi or adopting a mindful approach to playing social tennis (through conscious breathing, visualisation, recall of personal competence in other settings and adopting an intentional mindset informed by reflection on my mistakes and behaviour during a game of tennis).   

Both Bruce and Oprah assert that we need a “healthy combination of rewards”, and that “personal connectedness” is the real reward that can offset the “pull of addictive behaviour”.  For both, connectedness in the form of “positive interaction with people” is not only rewarding but also assists with the development of emotional regulation (offsetting dysregulation).  I’ve found connectedness on a personal and professional level that has helped me to achieve a sense of balance and self-worth.   My current marriage (of 37 years) is especially affirming, and my professional relationships developed through my work in the action learning arena have countered any sense of isolation or negative thoughts of not contributing.   

Experience of being loved 

Both Oprah and Bruce argue that the way we were loved as children influences our capacity for love and the way we go about giving and receiving love.  A critical parent will beget a child who is sensitive to being criticised and yet be highly critical as a parent.   In their view, “safe and stable nurturing” is an essential environment for developing the capacity to love – the absence of such an environment can negatively impact our “regulatory network”, our neural development and biology, and lead to dysfunctional behaviour.  Oprah maintains that “dysfunction shows up in direct proportion to how you were or were not loved”.   Bruce argues that a pattern of love that is attentive, responsive and attuned creates predictability and develops resilience.   

My experience of being loved as I was growing up is very mixed.  I experienced unconditional love from my mother, while from my father my experience was one of disconnection and for the most part, disinterest.   While Oprah and Bruce discuss situations where an individual experiences genuine carer’s love in their early years and discuss, in-depth, the impacts of a lack of love, I have not yet encountered in their conversations a situation where the childhood experience of love is very mixed.   

My mother worked most of her life to keep the five of us fed and educated – at a time when the stay-at-home wife was the dominant role of women.  Her efforts were supported by food packages dropped off by volunteers of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  She desired the best for each of us and was warm and loving, always putting our needs before her own.  Oprah and Bruce highlight the positive impact of attentiveness to the needs of a child as a key to balanced personal development.    

In contrast, my father was absent for five years in my early childhood and when he returned (after fighting in World War 11 and being a member of the Occupation Forces in Japan), he became a violent alcoholic who frequently hurt my mother and made our life hell.  We often lived in fear as he was not only very strong but had been a very successful professional boxer. He created a fearful and unpredictable environment that left us all in a high state of arousal and anxiety.  His love was uncertain, punctuated as it was by periods of disinterest and angry outbursts.   I only understood years later that his “emotional dysregulation” was a result of his own traumas and PTSD (having been injured in the war by a bomb, captured and confined for three years in Changi prison in Singapore).  It is difficult to conceive of the horrors that he must have experienced and the flashbacks that tortured him.  

Bruce maintains that where a young child experiences unpredictable behaviour on the part of the caregiver, they can live in fear.  Besides the freeze/fight/flight pattern this can lead to dissociation – where we disengage from the external environment to focus on our inner world.  Bruce states that we each engage in dissociation when we allow our mind to wander or daydream.  It becomes a problem when this is a frequent behaviour or leads to an ever-deeper withdrawal.  My teachers used to write on my report card that I daydreamed excessively.  I can also recall times when I dissociated because the events that I was encountering were too fearful and/or conflicting for me to bear.  

Reflection 

I have experienced multiple traumas in my life and continuously seek to understand their impacts on my behaviour.  For instance, I find that I talk to women more easily than men (a residual effect of my ambiguous and unpredictable relationship with my father).  I also dislike elevators, preferring to walk up stairs – a result of being confined in an orphanage in my early years and being boarded in a convent in Grade 2, 100 kilometers from home and my parents.  Oprah and Bruce provide a very digestible way for each of us to explore the impact of trauma in our lives – and gain an understanding that can lead to behavioural change and genuine self-acceptance.  

I have found that as I grow in mindfulness through my research of trauma and practice of meditation and reflection, I have gained increasing self-awareness and emotional regulation.  It has helped me to experience calmness and develop resilience in my life.  

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Image by Jaesub Kim from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives) 

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.