A disclaimer as I begin: I haven’t got “it” all figured out. I am not a poster child for the happily-in-love trauma survivor.
However, I have had time to reflect on my past relationships, and many of my clients are (or want to be) “trauma survivors in love.” I am grateful that they allow me to witness their relational journeys, and I am happy to share what I have learned from them.
So dear reader, are you a trauma survivor in love? Congrats! I am happy for you. And, my friend…you have got your work cut out! Let’s look at what a trauma survivor in love is up against.
TRAUMA IS UNDIGESTED EXPERIENCE
What is trauma? Trauma is undigested experience that is stored in the body as contractions and implicit memories. Traumatic experiences are situations where either our life is at stake or we perceive it to be; or when we witness a threat to someone else’s life.
The definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) includes symptoms such as 1. the re-emergence of implicit memories in the form of intrusive sensations; 2. a tendency to avoid situations that remind us of the traumatic incident(s); 3. and ongoing hyperarousal (ie. hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping or concentrating).
Trauma survivors become “triggered” when our traumatic past is projected onto the present.
What are your brain and body doing when you become triggered? Those of us with PTSD need to know that we don’t have any choice about getting triggered. This is because the parts of the brain that create fight, flight orfreeze responses are designed to override the rest of the brain.
The main brain systems that are involved in trauma responses are the limbic brain system and the brain stem/reptile brain. The limbic system is the emotional brain that experiences danger, pleasure and pain. Your reptile brain (or brainstem) governs breathing, defecating, sleeping.
When we are not in a traumatic experience, we can access our pre-frontal cortex. This brain is capable of conscious, rational decision-making, empathy and observation.
TRAUMA VS TRIGGER RESPONSES
Trauma responses involve three components of the limbic brain: the hypothalamus, the amygdala and the hippocampus. During a traumatic experience, the hypothalamus sends a visceral message to the amygdala: “something terrible is happening to me!”
As the message reaches the amygdala, it creates intense anxiety. The amygdala then tells the hippocampus “something scary is happening!” which causes the explicit memory function of the hippocampus to shut down. Now we have stopped consciously recording what is happening.
Our implicit memory continues to record events, but not in an organized or retrievable fashion. Instead, sensory input during traumatic events is stored in our bodies in disconnected fragments, like scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces.
The sensory fragments we collect during a traumatic event set the tone for getting “triggered” later.
We can become triggered days, months or even years after a traumatic experience. When we encounter smells, sounds (tones of voice), visuals (facial expressions) and behaviors that unconsciously remind us of some aspect of our past trauma, our amygdala decides the current situation is dangerous.
The amygdala’s fear message is carried by the hypothalamus to the brain stem. Suddenly the stakes are high! As the reptile brain roars into fight or flight mode, it shuts down the pre-frontal cortex’s ability to discern and respond appropriately to the present moment.
At this point, all we can do is what we have done before; feel what we felt before. We react and adapt just like we did before (usually some variation of fight, flight, freeze, appease or dissociate). We may repeat the stories we told ourselves before. That is PTSD in a nutshell.
During a trigger moment, the implicit memory floods us with unbearable sensations that are disconnected from the original traumatic event. Disturbing sounds, smells, tastes, images and kinesthetic sensations arise, and with them, intense thoughts and emotions.
It is as if we are suddenly holding a random collection of those puzzle pieces. This experience is so vivid that we connect it to our present situation and try to make current meaning from it.
Lacking that original context, it is natural to blame our discomfort on the current environment. For example, if we feel sensations of terror or violation, we point at whoever is with us, and say to ourselves, “s/he is violating me. S/he is dangerous.”
If we are re-living a childhood moment of being controlled and helpless, we may say to ourselves, “My friend is trying to control me.”
Of course, there may be a grain of truth in our assessment. Maybe our friend isdisregarding our boundaries. Maybe they are trying to get their way. But our somatic response is extreme: life-or-death. If we were not being hijacked by implicit memory our response to the same situation might be mild hurt or annoyance.
Or we might be calm enough to able to say, “Hey, I told you I need you to ask me first,” or, “Please do not push me.” We might be able to start a dialogue. But with that sense of imminent danger flooding us, we lose perspective.
THE IMPACT OF SINGLE INCIDENT TRAUMA
Let me give you an example of what this imposition of past trauma onto the present can look like in real life. Let’s say you are a passenger in a car traveling on a highway. A high wind buffets the car. Suddenly the car collides with another car. Your head is flung back and forward.
The amygdala’s alarm takes the hippocampus offline, so later on it will be difficult to remember what happened. Meanwhile, your implicit memory records it all.
After this accident, if you do not receive EMDR or some other trauma integration treatment, these implicit body-memories wait in the background, alert for similar kinds of danger.
Months later you are a passenger again, this time in a plane, seated by the wing. You can feel and hear the wind. Suddenly there is turbulence, and the plane starts bouncing.
With these three cues (being a passenger, windy conditions, bouncing) your implicit memory kicks in: You feel helpless; your neck and shoulders lock up to protect your head; dread fills you, and you start sweating; and you feel an urge to jump out of your seat and run.
The rest of the flight you are nervous, even after the turbulence ends. This seems strange, because before your car accident, air turbulence didn’t bother you. But now you cannot bear it.
Why is this? Your implicit memory is re-running and reliving the car crash, with its strain on your neck and a sense of imminent death.
That is how the implicit memory of single traumatic incident might be triggered by an unrelated event.
THE IMPACT OF COMPLEX, COLLECTIVE TRAUMA
I just described what can happen after a one-time incident. Just imagine the impact of this hippocampus offline/implicit memory online situation in the case of early childhood traumas (poor attachment, neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, etc.) on a child’s developing brain.
Children, adolescents and teens are also subject to racist, fat-phobic, transphobic or homophobic bullying or attacks. Imagine the impact of one or more of these repeated traumas experienced by a child for years on end.
None of the above traumas are one-time incidents—they are “complex traumas” which create deeply layered trauma responses.
Now add in the ancestral (and current) collective and institutional traumas that children with disabilities, female, queer, transgender and non-gender conforming children, adoptees, First Nations children, immigrant and refugee children of color, or Latino, Arab, Black, Asian, mixed race, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish children face or have faced directly or indirectly (through family or community members).
Such institutional traumas can include: inaccessible spaces and services, micro-aggressions, psychiatric and medical abuse, police brutality, deportation, incarceration, abductions, hate crimes, poverty, massacres, internment camps, foster care abuse, detention centers, drone attacks, war, political torture, and religious persecution.
These collective, cumulative traumas also fit the definition of complex traumas.
Collectively we are swimming in a great deal of relational trauma.
During these traumatic events, the meaning-making hippocampus is shut down, while our individual and collective body memories continue to record and store sensory input.
Unless we have the time, resources and compassionate space to process and digest these collective traumas, our implicit memories simmer beneath the surface, ready to pop out like jacks-in-the-box and throw us into fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate survival responses.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE TRIGGERING CONTEXTS FOR COMPLEX TRAUMA SURVIVORS
Most trauma survivors were traumatized within relationships. This means that any relationship can be a triggering context.
Complex childhood traumas disrupt not only our individual development, but our future relationships. We cannot avoid bringing our traumatic pasts into our romantic relationships.
A PERSONAL EXAMPLE
A former partner of mine and I had horrible fights about her friends dropping by unannounced. She would “go with the flow” in these situations and drop whatever she was doing.
Decisions about how long her friends stayed, or whether we shared a meal or the rest of the evening with them, were dependent on what our guests wanted. My partner rarely consulted me or set a boundary with her friends.
When I questioned her about it, I discovered she didn’t have a sense of choice in these situations. Sometimes even she was annoyed by the imposition of her friends! But she would shrug as if to say, “What can I do?” As for me, I was livid.
This conflict arose from personal and cultural differences. I am an introvert who grew up in a small WASP family; I need regular quiet and alone time at home, so I prefer to structure my time with others.
My partner was a go-with-the-flow extrovert from a large Irish Catholic family. Since we lived in a tiny house, the drop-in friends issue would inevitably be an area of potential compromise and conflict.
However, our fights about unscheduled guests were “over the top,” partly because my implicit trauma memories were hijacking me. As an intimate abuse survivor with PTSD, it felt like life and death to me when my partner welcomed drop-ins.
I would feel invisible and violated. Hindsight suggests that these situations reminded me of childhood experiences of invasion.
This past trauma was evoked by the random drop-ins plus my partner’s passive decisions about who was in my space, and when.
My reactions were disproportionate, because my implicit memory identified these current situations as urgent. My body memories also categorized my partner as yet another “family member” like my mother, who had casually exposed me to danger and violation.
At this point my reptile brain would take over. Out of the reptile brain’s survival repertoire of fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate, I would unobtrusively withdraw (freeze; flight) as much as I could from our visitors, or I would find an excuse to leave the house. Internally I was furious (fight), with my heart pounding and adrenaline running.
TWO (OR MORE) TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN LOVE
Now let’s add in my partner’s side of it, because it was not just my amygdala flipping out. My partner was also a relational trauma survivor.
In the anecdote I just told, I don’t know which of my partner’s implicit memories were called up by my reactive behaviors.
I only know that as my distress increased (and was registered by her body, since our animal bodies are constantly reading each other), she would increasingly attend to her guests needs but remain unaware of mine.
It was a perfect storm of mutual triggering.
My partner’s reptile brain reverted to an appease strategy with her guests, and a dissociate strategy in general, by pretending that everything was pleasant and okay, and by relating to me very one-dimensionally.
I in turn would hide my feelings as best as I could (freeze), which reinforced her reason to tune me out. After the guests were gone, I would physically return but remain remote, and she would continue to pretend that all was well.
Sooner or later we would have a terrible fight fueled by mutual resentment and blame.
The sort of dynamic I just described is to be expected for trauma survivors in love, except during the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship.
It can come as a rude shock when, three to six month into a romantic relationship when biochemical rose-colored glasses effect http://www.alternet.org/sex-amp-relationships/chemical-romance-how-hormones-influence-sex-love-and-relationships starts to fade.
After the honeymoon, that magical sense of mutual safety and understanding can vanish.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE EXTREME SPORTS FOR TRAUMA SURVIVORS
For a survivor of complex trauma, romantic love (or friendship, for that matter) is an extreme sport. Let me say that again: relationships are extreme sports for complex trauma survivors!
We could compare the complex trauma survivor embarking on a relationship to a novice mountain climber. If you decide to start mountain climbing with a partner, the following steps are essential:
This is the end of Part One of Trauma Survivors in Love (TSIL). So far I have partially covered Step 1.
In TSIL Parts Two, Three and Four I will identify some of the rewards of being a trauma survivor couple (or triad, etc.) in love.
I will also break down Steps 2) to 5) of the extreme sports metaphor by offering specific examples of self-care and self-healing practices, emotional first aid, somatic safety and collaboration practices for partners, and tips for creating trauma healing support teams.
Thanks for reading. Please be gentle with you and your loved ones.
Thanks to Babette Rothschild, Denise Benson, Dan Siegel, Peter Levine for their trauma savvy wisdom.
wow wow wow Thank you!
hi / this is so useful. what would you think about clarifying, in the opening, that responses to trauma can include either avoiding situations that evoke the original trauma *or* being unable to stop returning/getting hooked on situations that evoke the original trauma. We do both – invasion traumas (as when someone attacks us or terrorizes us or crosses boundaries) can lead to avoidance and abandonment traumas (as when someone we depend on for survival neglects or abandons us or fails to protect us before we are capable of survival independently) lead to repeat seeking of the scenario of the original trauma. or these two responses can be intermingled regardless of the kinds of trauma. It would make this piece even more spectacularly helpful to have the full range of trauma responses named.
I think you already did a good job of expressing this important aspect. Thank you! So true. The example that often comes to my mind is how child sexual abuse survivors, as adults, tend to gravitate to extremes of sexual expression/repression. Such a survivor may at some point become a sex worker, or a nun, or over their lifespan, perhaps both. Whatever helps the survivor feel they have conquered the original site of their trauma and terror: sex. And attachment traumas can lead to anxious clinging (“don’t leave me!”) or extreme independence (“I don’t need you!”), or a swinging back and forth between the two. Lenore Terr’s book, Unchained Memories tells the story of a world class river diver who became a river diver by (unconsciously) plunging headlong into his childhood trauma. Our bodies are so ingenious at surviving trauma. We can, as Machig Lapdron said, “Go to the places that scare you.” Or we can run far, far away in the opposite direction.