Q. I am a 43 year old female who experienced trauma as a child. I am looking at my life and wonder how much of that trauma is still affecting me. I have just started counseling for the first time to see if my failed relationships are somehow connected. Can I ever move past the damage from my childhood?
A. The good news Janie, you can move past the emotional damage from the traumatic events that occurred in your childhood. The fact that you have made a connection is a positive start. Unfortunately early childhood trauma does not magically disappear when we turn 18, leave home or start college. We may realize how we have been affected or we might not have a clue.
Everybody has had a little trauma and some have had a lot. Trauma can be physical assaults against our bodies; it can be chronic chaos or witnessing abuse against others; it can be abandonment or as seemingly innocuous as being teased on the playground.
Here’s what happens in the brain: The brain tries to protect us from the trauma happening again. The part of us that got wounded doesn’t know its over with, even though the intellectual part knows it is. The amygdala stores the traumatic memory along with the most subtle or circumstantial and environmental stimuli,e.g., smell, tones of voice, heartbeat, absence of something.
When the amygdala recognizes anything remotely like the original memory it sets off the alarm, dumps adrenalin and cortisol and dominates the decision making prefrontal cortex. The person then is in reaction mode. In reaction mode we are in flight, fight or freeze. This ability for the brain to do this was installed to help us survive back in the day when we were on the take out menu. Those who did not have it didn’t survive. Those who went into the calm of rational decision-making were lunch.
This is the essence of PTSD. It is a wound. It is not crazy. It is not mental illness. The amygdala doesn’t think and it, by degree, shuts down the thinking part. The reactivity of PTSD can destroy perfectly good relationships. And its harsh on the health of the body too.
When triggered the amygdala doesn’t know the difference between the one you love and the enemy that needs destroying or running from. The good news is that the amygdala can be discharged of its dormant voltage and CAN BE REPROCESSED. That is where therapy comes in.
You have made a very positive decision to start therapy and challenge your belief systems, grow your self esteem and as you reprocess your amygdala, healthier relationships will be possible.
Vicki L Mayfield, M.Ed., R.N., LMFT Marriage and Family Therapy Oklahoma City
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