I want to share something I wrote today in one of my Facebook groups about Developmental Trauma vs Shock Trauma.
This was in response to the following comment that showed up in a conversation in the group: “If you experienced developmental trauma, it is not possible to heal, your trauma is written in stone, but if you experienced a shock trauma, you are likely to make a full recovery.”
I don’t agree with this assertion, but there are elements of truth woven into it. Let’s slow down and unpack this topic.
The absence of developmental trauma: a good enough infancy and childhood:
If a child has a good enough experience in the womb and as an infant and young person, if the unpleasant experiences that they have are manageable and they are able to have safety, love, recognition and support in the face of pain or upset, then that person will tend to have a nervous system and an inner emotional life that is fairly well balanced.
They will be able to know that they matter, they will be able to be aware of their needs and to accept people loving them and meeting those needs. If this person then experiences some sort of intense shock trauma later in life, they do indeed stand a good chance of being able to return to something that resembles their previous baseline of stability and feeling ok.
One of the key elements in this story is the fact that this person has a solid previous baseline that they can reference in their healing process.
Their body-mind system knows how to feel ok and be ok, because it has lots of experience of doing just that.
The developmental trauma picture:
In contrast, someone with Complex PTSD from developmental trauma, or someone whose nervous system is dysregulated from developmental trauma, regardless of whether they meet the diagnosing guidelines for C-PTSD, does not have a solid previous baseline to refer to. Those of us with significant developmental trauma may have had periods of our lives where we looked pretty ok on the outside, and we may have even believed that our inner experiences were normal. But we don’t have a solid previous baseline. If anything, we had a period of time whereby through significant unconscious mental gymnastics, we were able to find a way to hide from ourselves most of the pain and disruption from our trauma and to act like we understood we were supposed to act.
So, if healing from a trauma means going back to the way it was before, I believe in most cases, that is not possible with developmental trauma. But the truth is, we don’t want to go back to how it was before, because the way it was really did not work very well. There was a lot of suppression, a lot of confusion and hidden pain, various oddities in our feelings and behaviors that made life difficult for us and for those around us. So we really do not want to go back.
Reframing the question:
So the question could be framed,
“If we are suffering from the effects of developmental trauma, is it possible to feel better and to have our minds, bodies, and lives work better? “
And that answer is a definite yes.
It is possible to feel better.
Comparison to illness or injury:
Recovery from shock trauma when there was a solid foundation can reasonably be compared to recovery from a physical illness or injury. Reclaiming and rebuilding what was compromised or lost.
Feeling better after developmental trauma can’t be compared to recovery from physical illness or injury. It is more aptly compared with a path of psychological growth or a path toward spiritual enlightenment. Such a path requires questioning and shedding fundamental beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about life and the world around us, beliefs that feel so true that it seems almost impossible that we could find a way to not believe them.
So it’s not really a “healing from”, but rather a “growing through”.
When a young tree has spikes driven through it, but that tree continues to grow and ultimately thrive, the tree has not recovered from the spikes. “Recovery from” implies that the assaulting element is gone, or so vastly reduced in size and scope that you can’t see or feel any evidence of it. But you can still see the spikes in the base of the tree, years and decades later. The tree did not recover from the invasion of those spikes, it grew through that situation.
The tree was permanently shaped by the presence of the spikes, and they are a permanent part of the tree’s experience. But the tree learned to grow and thrive even with those invading objects present.
It’s like that with developmental trauma. The deep experiences of terror or shame or violation or abandonment never disappear. Instead, we learn how to grow through them, how to dig deeper and find spiritual and psychological resources we never knew were there. We learn to make distinctions about what is real and what are just remnants of old feelings that feel real but are simply not valid in present time and space. We learn to make distinctions that most people never have any reason to know are even possible.
Through this process of growing through, we can develop skills and insights that it would be very difficult for someone to develop who never had the experience of developmental trauma. There is a lot of potential. And a lot is possible. But it is not easy, we have to be willing to bend reality as we know it.
My hope is to launch a self-healing course sometime in the coming weeks. But I am often overly optimistic about timing, so it could be months rather than weeks.
I hope that you are safe and well as the spring approaches.