How does early experience stay in our neuro-physiology?
“Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, body and brain.” Bessel van der Kolk
Our unhappiness, confusion, relational difficulties, career problems, chronic illness or stress, fatigue and/or inability to create a healthy life for ourselves all have roots in our early developmental experience. For many this can be hard to accept, as the trauma survival strategies of denial, illusion and distraction stop us from engaging with our reality.
Trauma is a lasting imprint on our neuro-emotional-physiological systems. By the term physiology I refer to all our body systems, the immune, endocrine, skeletal, circulatory, digestive, respiratory and other essential components of staying alive. Bessel van der Kolk (The body keeps the score) states that ‘the body bears the full force of the trauma’.
This internalised imprint, our trauma, is our response to life threatening events from conception onwards. We experience such events through our senses and the parts of our brain that are attuned to responding to danger, to processing and storing our experience.
In the types of experience that result in trauma, the child is unable to make use of her flight or flight responses, either because the danger is overwhelming or because the responses are too weak (as in a young infant). When that happens a different neuro-physiological process takes over. This results in dissociation from the experience, ‘playing dead’, numbness, and in stress responses which are toxic to the infant or child. Such responses leave a lasting imprint on the body systems. This imprint, or memory of experience, is held in the networked pathways of our neuro-emotional-physiological systems, at cellular level. This memory is the molecular, biochemical and physiological alterations to the cellular development. The systems continue to develop but in an altered state as a result of the intense experience. This includes the developing brain and how the different parts of the brain are able to communicate with each other. For example, the ability to evaluate the danger in the here and now is affected as part of the trauma and results in the neuro-emotional-physiological systems being activated as they were at the time the trauma pathways were laid down.
As the brain develops in the first years of life, the relationships around us leave a lasting impact on the sense of ourselves, how wanted and lovable we feel for ourselves, and how safe and protected we feel with others. We are relational beings and the nature of early relationships shape our developing brain having a lasting impact on how we see ourselves and how we are able to relate to ourselves and others.
Much is now being written about the neuro-emotional-physiological impact of experience and how it continues to affect us throughout our life unless we do appropriate personal development work to change those established pathways and prevent the restimulation of toxic levels of stress. The continuation not only leads to unhealthy relationships with ourselves and others, including our children, but to chronic physical ill health and to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
These old pathways, which have been activated over and over throughout our lives, as unconscious responses, can be changed. New pathways can be established which means that we can step out of our trauma responses. This takes personal commitment and doesn’t happen immediately; however, gradually internal change is possible through body based work which ‘uploads’ new neuro-physiological-emotional information at cellular level.
Coaching can contribute to this through enhancing trauma awareness and understanding, by bringing into conscious awareness behaviour and emotional responses to the ‘here and now’ which may have their roots in the ‘there and then’, by teaching self-regulation exercises and by ensuring that, as coaches, we are not entangling our clients through our trauma responses.
Julia Vaughan Smith
Ruppert. F. (Ed) (2018) My body, My trauma, my I. Green Balloon Publishing UK
Gerhardt. S. (2004) Why love matters. How affection shapes a baby’s brain. Brunner-Routledge.
van Der Kolk. B. (2015 ) The Body Keeps The Score. The Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Allen Lane
Levine. P.A (2015) Trauma and Memory:Brain and Body in a search for the living past. North Atlantic Books
Maté. G. (2013) In the realm of the Hungry Ghosts - close encounters with addiction. Vintage Canada
Maté. G. ( 2003) The Body Says No. Wiley
Rothschild. B. (2000) The Body Remembers: The psychology of trauma and trauma treatment. W.W. Norton & Company
Having run workshops and masterclasses and spoken at conferences I have become aware of 5 different ways in which people engage with trauma from a practitioner perspective.
The first is Trauma Awareness. This is relevant for all in the population, not only coaching practitioners. It is about getting a broad understanding of what trauma means and how prevalent it is in society. Enhancing trauma awareness enables coaches to feel less overwhelmed by the concept. It is unlikely to change behaviour but might change attitude. For some, that is enough.
The second level is referred to as 'mental health first aid'. Some come to my workshops having associated trauma with mental ill health and are looking for practical 'what to do if' they are presented with someone who appears to be mentally unstable, who has a diagnosis of post traumatic stress (or how to recognize that), or who may become retraumatised. This is a common anxiety among coaches and it is important that practitioners feel confident in handling such situations, rare though they are within most coaching. If someone is working in a mental health field, then of course the context is different. There seems to be a belief held by some that mental ill health and coaching don't mix. I don't agree. I think there can be many situations where someone has a mental health diagnosis and can do useful work with a coach. However, we do have a duty of care to our clients so these 'what to do if's' are important considerations.
The third 'level' is the application of trauma understanding to coaching practice, without becoming a faux therapist. This involves raising our own self-awareness through reflective practice, including our supervision, so that we can track our own survival strategies and inquire into their function, and how the 'there and then' is coming into the 'here and now'. Coaching through survival self doesn't help the client. Nor does coaching the survival self in the client. Trauma understanding can enable us to select and use the appropriate interventions to identify and inquire into survival behaviour, to focus on the health self resources, to use psyche-education, and to use the autobiography as a link with the 'there and then'. Coaching has the skills needed to do this, as long as they are used in the most appropriate way.
The fourth 'level' is that of wanting to become an integrative practitioner, that is using psycho-therapeutic skills and interventions alongside those of coaching. There is no easy way of doing this. I did a 6 year training to qualify as a psychotherapist. It is more straightforward for a therapist to be trained in coaching, although some practices are challenged in that process. Some who talk to me about this have a desire to work with people with mental ill health or who are affected by domestic or sexual abuse others, want to deepen the work they currently do. My response is similar to both. That is do work on your own trauma first and beware of the rescuer survival strategy at work.
The final 'level' isn't really a level but is about doing your own therapeutic inquiry work. This can be stimulated by raising our trauma awareness and making links with our own experience. We need to take our own trauma seriously to help ensure we are not passing it on to those around us, including our clients. By only talking about Professor Ruppert's theory as it applies to coaching, the rich experience of being exposed to the process he has developed to go with the theory is left out. The process can be used in coaching but only by a coach who has undergone her own trauma work and a training in facilitating the process. For a coach, this is the same as doing a training in psychotherapy in terms of the time requirement. However, you can experience it by going on workshops provided by Vivian Broughton (www.vivianbroughton.com) or Alexandra Smith (www.alexandraasmith.co.uk) or other named on Vivian's website. I run such workshops too when there is a demand. There are other ways of getting a fuller experiential understanding of trauma through sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing or somatic movement therapy.
Which level is the one for you? My book 'Coaching and Trauma' is due out in August of this year. Some of the 'What if's' are addressed in that, as is trauma awareness and the application to coaching practice. Jenny Rogers and I also cover that territory in our Masterclass. The next one is May 16th, the September 26th and November 21st - see www.coachingandtrauma.com for information and booking.