Understanding and Tracking Relational Trauma in the Body
Tracking relational trauma is essential, because it gets activated when you least expect it. Trauma survivors may not realize that they have been emotionally traumatized; and so are oblivious to their reactions to others during a bout of activation. Their reactions are prescribed and they are not aware of what is happening in their threat system that makes them react so powerfully.
There is a difference between trauma that is caused by a single overwhelming event leading to PTSD, and recurring trauma that is on a constant loop, continuing across all relationships and situations. The latter is relational trauma and is the most pernicious – due to it’s widespread effect on all significant relationships.
Tracking Relational Trauma – the nature and operation of the recurring trauma
If you are one of the 20 – 40 % of people who were subjected to repeated relational trauma in early life then you probably developed an insecure disorganized attachment style that creates distrust and lack of safety. It’s relational because from the third trimester of pregnancy, your right brain was at maximum readiness for developing emotional connections that offer a sense of stability and safety, but your primary caregiver failed to give you the optimal necessary facial, vocal and tactile contact necessary for a healthy emotional resilience that allows for trust.
In a series of books and articles Allan Schore synthesizes the research on neurobiology, psychology and child development. He defines relational trauma as ‘chronic attachment trauma repeatedly through prolonged exposure just as the right brain is developing.’
So just as the right brain is forming it’s connections and structures needed for secure safe attachments, Schore outlines in detail how the inconsistency of disorganized attachment – sometimes safe and nurturing and other times not, encodes the developing right brain for a particular set of responses when unsafe.
The relationally traumatized person either shuts down (numbs out and dissociates) to protect themselves from the lack of care and safety or goes into a high arousal level to fight for their survival. The same person – basically anyone that you have to depend on, can give you signals that are responsive and safe or unresponsive and dangerous. You never know when you trust the signals, and become primed to look for the negative signs. Intimacy feels scary and is avoided at all costs.
The left hemisphere or cognitive side doesn’t come on line until the 2nd year of life, so there are no words or thoughts that can process the relational trauma. Therefore the trauma lives in the body and is easily triggered by any hint of being let down, betrayed, manipulated, lied to, used, disregarded, dismissed, marginalized and or rejected.
Tracking Relational Trauma in the Body – signs of activation to the observer
When you are having a conversation with a survivor of relational trauma you see
A. Detachment or Dissociation (stuck on off mode)
• Blank look
• Frozen body posture and tone
• Long uncomfortable pauses with no response
• Lack of eye contact during pause
• Disconnection from bodily signs of emotion (butterflies or knots in the stomach, burning or stabbing sensations; pins and needles, tightness in the chest, cramps, noises in the throat or lower abdomen etc.)
• Denial of emotion even though its written all over their face and body posture
Anika, a 40-year-old college admissions administrator sat across from me. A tiny wrinkle of a smile showed on the right side of her mouth, but her lips stayed closed. She enjoyed the moment where we both tried to talk at once, gave each other the floor, only for us to talk simultaneously again. But a minute later, she turned her head to one side and looked down at her bracelet, frozen. Tracking relational trauma in the body, it was as if she turned to stone. Even her breathing seemed to have stopped. My pulse speeded up, and I felt a pit of fear in my abdomen. I became vigilant trying to sniff out what had just happened. My thoughts raced, scanning for answers as to what breeched the connection between us that made her need to numb out and detach.
Then it came to me that she had been telling me about a doctor’s appointment where the physician had looked at some test results on a computer screen, told her to keep taking her medication and walked out. I sensed her experience of being dismissed as unimportant – and said so. Tracking relational trauma in the body, that seemed to be the moment when she went off line. It was as if me vocalizing her lived experience made it real and her body went into protection mode. Earlier in the session she experienced me as safe and trustworthy. But in this instant I was making her feel insecure by bringing it all back. It was as if I was the one dismissing her, and she dissociated.
Tracking relational trauma in the body, it was clear that she was reliving the emotional trauma of a caring person being both soothing/trustworthy and unsafe/scary. Sometime later Anika came back to the present moment. But she was suspicious of me and defended herself by sharing little, and interpreting my efforts to get closer and comfort her as intrusive and jarring.
B. High Arousal – Fight or Flight State – activation of the sympathetic nervous system (stuck on ‘on’ mode)
• Shallow rapid breathing
• Talking over you
• Scanning the area with vigilant eye movements
• Shifting and moving away as if to escape
On another occasion Anika related a series of disappointing interactions with family, neighbors and acquaintances. I reflected back that she was hurt, felt invisible and was lonely. This time she got very upset. She moved from side to side on her chair, held her head up high, frowned and yelled at me, “What do you want me to do?”
Tracking relational trauma in the body, I saw that she was in a state of high arousal, having experienced my reflections as critical – inferring that her feelings were wrong and that there must be something wrong with her. Her lips were pursed, her cheeks colored and she sat way back in her chair, withdrawing. Her body tensed up and her shoulders closed in as if to protect herself. Once again my pulse raced, and the pit of my stomach stung with stabbing pains – a mirroring of Anika’s experiencing my words as stabbing to her. Tracking relational trauma in the body I sensed that I was the enemy and that nothing I said would get through. I waited some time to show her that I was not destroyed by her anger, and wouldn’t abandon her. She could now trust me again. Her parasympathetic system – specifically the polyvagal nerve kicked in to reduce the arousal as she was no longer in danger. Then I let her know that she must have felt attacked by me when I spoke of her disappointment and invisibility. But now tracking relational trauma in the body, she was visible again, and in one piece.
Living with someone with a disorganized attachment – tracking relational trauma in the body
• Speak to their emotional reactions using words of emotion – in other words speak with your right brain to their right brain. That helps you feel heard and it them seen. By doing so, you are able to mediate the threat that your loved one is experiencing. Using the polyvagal theory of safety coming from facial cues, tone of voice, speed of speech and eye contact, you can down regulate the activation in your loved one. A feeling of safety for you both enables fear and threat to be reduced and a safe space to connect with trust that you are able to give and receive care, empathy, acceptance, tolerance and compassion.
• Avoid giving explanations or speaking to common sense or rationality because that is coming from your left brain. It won’t reach the traumatized person because their left brain is shut down. You will end up feeling you’ve got nowhere and get activated yourself, making things worse.
• When a significant person in your life exhibits signs of relational trauma such as Anika, remember that their brains are reacting to a threat of danger, and try not to take it personally. You may feel threatened in response and want to protect yourself. While understandable, it merely serves to reinforce the relationally traumatized person to experience you as highly unsafe and abandoning.
• Reflect when you are less activated yourself – what dangers came up for you and what spectrum of security you were thrown into. That will help you empathize and identify with your significant other and reduce the threat level on both sides.
• Invite your significant other to go to psychodynamic therapy that repairs relational trauma.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2021
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