Trauma and Memory


I got to spend the last two weekends learning from Peter A. Levine, PhD, as he was in the Bay Area teaching a 5-day master class on near death experiences and medical trauma, and a short workshop on using Somatic Experiencing to heal chronic pain.

I picked up Peter's latest book, Trauma and Memory, Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, and love how clearly the essence of Somatic Experiencing is captured in the following paragraphs, written in the Foreword by Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD.

Traumatic imprints stealthily force themselves on us, not so much as stories or conscious memories, but as emotions, sensations, and 'procedures' - things that the body automatically does, as psychological automatisms. If trauma is played out in procedural automatisms, healing cannot be accomplished by advice, drugs, understanding, or fixing, but rather by accessing the inborn life force...our innate drive for perseverance and triumph.

What does this consist of? Getting to know yourself, feeling your physical impulses, noticing how your body stiffens and contracts, and how emotions, memories, and impulses arise as the awareness of your interiority increases. Sensory imprints of trauma can have powerful effects on our subsequent reactions, behaviors, and emotional feeling states. After having become accustomed to constantly being on guard against letting these demons from the past enter our consciousness, we must instead learn to simply notice them without judgment and observe them for what they are: signals to activate inborn motor action programs. Following their natural course will help rearrange our relationship to ourselves.

Getting to know yourself, from the inside out...the sensations in your body, the impetus of your impulses, how you know you like or dislike something, "getting out of your head" and deepening your awareness of your "interiority." I find this process to not only be true for trauma healing, but also as a means for deeply getting to know one self and finding self-love, embodied empathy, and, eventually, interconnectedness to all living beings. 

Pre and Perinatal Psychology? Let's Take it From the Beginning.

A few years ago, I found myself in a training that was being taught by my now highly regarded teacher and friend. She spent some time talking about Pre- and Perinatal Psychology, which, at the time, I brushed off as something just a little bit too "out there" for me. However, at some point since then, perhaps due to tuning in to my own maternal instincts or tendencies, I started paying attention to this field of study, and now find it to be a true passion and professional interest. I believe that understanding this work is imperative to creating healthier communities and a more peaceful world. 

Rather than try to explain everything I am learning about this field of study in one blog post, I will be writing a series of posts on this topic to help deepen my own work and understanding, as well as to provide information to anyone interested in knowing more about this field.

So, let's take it from the beginning.

Pre and perinatal psychology is the study of human development from pre-conception through the first year of life outside the womb.

A parent's own unconscious, early-life patterns and held traumas, as well as current stress levels, states of mind, and internal toxins from chemicals, processed foods, and the environment can all influence the DNA selection for a baby prior to conception. This is true for both the mother and the father. Both parents can create a sense of safety, nurture, and protection for their baby prior to conception by taking care of their own bodies, minds, relationships and external environments several months prior to conception. With conscious conception and the understanding that secure attachment begins prenatally, parents can set the stage for a child’s lifelong health and well-being.

The origins of pre and perinatal psychology can be traced all the way back to 1924 with the release of psychoanalyst, Otto Rank’s book, The Trauma of Birth, in which he suggested that the prenatal experience and birth process are influential in mental health.

Psychological research around conception, prenatal experiences, and birth imprints continued to be explored by psychoanalysts for decades following. Out of this work emerged transpersonal psychology and the study of consciousness and spirituality, as well as John Bowlby’s renowned Attachment Theory.

Over the decades, many have contributed to the field of pre and perinatal psychology, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, with the rise of neuroscience, that this field was legitimized by the scientific community. Federal government funding for brain research led to the 1990’s being coined “The Decade of the Brain,” and also led to the development of the Human Genome Project, which contributed to the study of epigenetics. This relatively new field of study shows that gene selection is influenced by the environment and has settled the age-old nature/nurture debate. We now know that nature and nurture play equally important roles in human development, even in the developing prenate.

The on-going, cutting-edge research in the field of pre and perinatal psychology, if valued and accepted by society, will no doubt contribute to healthier communities and a healthier world, as we can finally begin to understand the potentially life-long impact of our very early life experiences (from pre-conception on). With this understanding, potential parents can choose conscious conception and pre-natal care that will create a most optimal environment for gene selection, nervous system regulation, and the mental and physical health of their child. Expectant parents must recognize that their baby is a conscious being who can sense and feel stress, pain, and loving care prior to birth, and most definitely after. 

Stuck Happens. Ready to Break Free?

Photo by Valentina

Photo by Valentina

There is significant healing power in stories, images, analogies, metaphors, and the like. One of my favorite analogies came to me several months ago when I was talking with a dear friend about that "stuck" place that so many people identify with. "Stuck in a rut," stuck in depression, stuck in anger or resentment, stuck in unfulfilling or non-productive behavioral patterns, stuck in self-hate... you get the picture. As I think more about this stuck thing, I realize that stuck is never good. Wouldn't you agree? When an insect is stuck in a spider's web, it becomes dinner. Being stuck in traffic potentially creates stress, anxiety, or road rage. Perhaps you've been stuck at work past the time you wanted to leave... the key word being wanted... you wanted something different. 

The opposite of stuck is unstuck, or freedom... movement... release... flow. Just thinking about these words feels good, as, energetically, all living things are meant to be in a state of movement and flow. Stuck naturally feels bad, and it can sometimes be hard to understand how and why stuck happens. While there are different ways of looking at stuck, including through the more scientific lens of biology and physiology, I like to also think about stuck as an analogy - the analogy of the shell around you. 

It's the shell around you that causes "stuck." The shell is holding you back. Maybe it's keeping you trapped in resentment, unfulfilling behavioral patterns, or anger. Perhaps it's preventing you from pursuing your dreams or living fully. Everyone's shell is made up of stories we're told and those which we continue to tell ourselves. It's made of conditioned perspectives, the behaviors of others to which we (sometimes wrongly) ascribe meaning, and, ultimately, our fears... perhaps most specifically, our fear of rejection. (Given that all mammals need connection to survive, especially in our earliest years, I would argue that rejection is somewhat of an innate, primal fear that causes a bit of a protective shell around everyone.) 

Other parts of the shell around you may be comprised of arbitrary "shoulds"  that just never felt right to you. You know the one's I'm talking about..."You should do this." "You shouldn't do that." "You should behave this way." "You shouldn't behave that way." Now, don't get me wrong here. I do believe there are appropriate "shoulds" and "should nots" that create healthy living (i.e. You should not hurt or kill others. You should eat vegetables), but for the purpose of this analogy, I am talking about the more arbitrary "should messages" - those that just don't quite resonate with you. The "should messages" that have contributed to the creation of your shell... those that you took on only because... well... because you were told you should (or shouldn't).  Here are some examples:

"You shouldn't cry."

"You should keep your opinions to yourself."

"You shouldn't express yourself that way."

"You should be more productive."

"You should keep a cleaner house."

"You shouldn't enjoy yourself too much."

Say what??? 

And there's more. Other parts of the shell might be the internalized messages you received from a disapproving or mis-attuned parent, or a teacher.  Maybe it was the parent who didn't appreciate your natural talents or interests and wanted something different for you. That parent's desire for you to be something different trumped the blossoming of something authentic and beautiful within you. Perhaps other pieces of the shell come from the subsequent stories you tell yourself, such as, "I'm not good enough." "I'm not meant to be successful." "My needs aren't important." "I need to just accept my situation, even though I don't really like it." Who gave you these messages? Did someone literally tell you the messages that make up your shell, or did you create them yourself? Were they spoken or subtly implied? 

You might think of the shell as a mold that formed around you and shaped you into who you are. But is it serving you? I believe that our shells initially developed to protect us, keeping us from getting hurt when we didn't have the resources or understanding of how to adequately handle the big world around us. As adults, however, they don't serve us in the same way. In fact, often, they tend to hold us back and confine us. What happens when we are too confined? We stop moving. We're stuck, trapped, held back, imprisoned in our own bodies, tense, rigid, unhappy. This creates fighting within us, a broken and painful relationship with our own self. 

And then, we see our reflection in the shell. Not the reflection of who we truly, deeply are, but the reflection of the hurt, trapped, stuck person, and we don't like what we see at all. Self-hate settles in. This can feel totally defeating. Too painful to look at, and too confusing to understand, the tension and anger gets projected out onto others, often hurting those we love the most - our families, partners, children, and friends.

Living confined in this shell is unnatural, as you are a living, energetic being who is meant to move, dance, laugh, express, breathe deeply, be free, and experience a range of emotions (good and bad) without getting stuck.

So how do you connect back to your true self? 

How do you find self-love? 

How do you break free? 

Acknowledge the shell that is keeping you stuck. Investigate honestly how that shell was created. Notice the messages with which you resonate deeply - those that are innate to your being. And then notice the messages that create tension within you - those messages that you hold onto and carry with you as extra weight because you were told you should, or because you (mis)interpreted someone else's behaviors without clarification, or internalized their disapproval. 

Imagine yourself literally breaking out of the shell, breaking through those messages and seeing your true, authentic, free self. If you are having trouble differentiating your authentic self from your trapped self, a good therapist can help you. I often work with the trapped (false) self within my clients, paying attention to breath and movement (or lack thereof), imagery, sensation, and the mind-body connection, all of which reveal an abundance of information for finding the true self, connecting back to the true self, and healing the relationship within. 

You Can't be a Perfect Parent, So Relax!

Photo by Noel Hendrickson

Photo by Noel Hendrickson

How good does it feel to know that you are not expected to be a perfect parent? In fact, you can't be a perfect parent. It's not actually possible. We've all heard the age-old saying, "Parenting is the hardest job you'll ever love." Some days, however, you don't love it, and that's okay. You're human, you get frustrated, your kids challenge you to your core, you want a break, you NEED a break! Why is parenting so hard? And why won't you ever be a perfect parent? I am about to tell you.

Let me start with you  - the parent. You are not your children, and your children are not you. (I know, this is obvious, but hear me out.) You came into this world with your own brain and nervous system. You were born with a temperament, which is some combination of your various ancestors' temperaments, passed down through DNA. In addition, you have been exposed to unique events, conditioned by your environment, and "pinged" with little (and sometimes big) stressors. These stressors affected you as you were growing in the womb of life, at your birth, and ever since. Everything you experience - the good, the bad, and the ugly - gets stored in your brain, your nervous system, and your body. Your unique experiences create the conscious and subconscious road map that will inform your perspectives, and guide your decisions, interpersonal relationships, and, ultimately, your life. Now, some of these inputs have a significant influence in your life and others just barely have a blip of an impact, or so it seems. 

If you receive certain messages over and over again, the neurons in your brain will fire and wire repeatedly, forming what I call "synapse super highways" or beliefs. As an example, if you experience unconditional love, positive connection, and safety, repeatedly and consistently, (especially from a young age) the neurons in your brain fire and wire together, creating your beliefs that you are safe in the world, people can be trusted, and you are worthy of love. Another kind of road map is the firing and wiring of neurons that form the beliefs that the world is unsafe, people cannot be trusted, and "something must be wrong with me because people keep hurting me." Unfortunately, this kind of firing and wiring is all too common among children who grow up in homes of chronic abuse and neglect. 

Beliefs are learned. Just as you learn addition and subtraction, or how to ride a bike or drive a car, the more an experience is repeated, the more ingrained the "synapse super highways" become, and eventually, you barely have to think about what you are doing. Beliefs are no different. They are the neuro-pathways that are formed from the experiences and messages you receive. Okay, now what does this have to do with being (or not being) a perfect parent? And how does this pertain to the challenges of parenting?

Well, take your unique temperament, your beliefs, values, and thoughts, which are all based upon your unique experiences, and really ask yourself how they influence your parenting. Now, understand that your child has her own unique temperament and is forming her own neuro-pathways, based upon her own experiences. Remember, these experiences are coming from everyone she encounters and the various environments that surround her - everything impacts her, more or less, based upon her innate temperament and sensitivities. But, remember those little "pings" I mentioned above - the little experiences that "barely have a blip of an impact" (or so it seems)? Sometimes, those little pings aren't as little as they seem. They, too, can have a big impact, but because they may not be repetitive, (in fact a particular ping may only happen once) it's easy to brush them aside. Those little pings, however, can cut like a knife, forming a lasting super highway, or they might bleed into the subconscious part of the mind, which still has a very big impact on how we perceive and react. 

In a parent/child relationship, I call these pings "moments of misattunement." Misattunements can feel like threats to a child. They might feel like rejection or emotional pain. In young children, who do not yet know how to rationalize such feelings, a survival reaction of fight or flight might be triggered. Such reactions could look like outwardly expressed anger (fight) or internal rumination, which looks like withdrawal (flight).  Not knowing what is causing these reactions might, in turn, cause you, the parent, to be confused  and maybe even frustrated enough to continue (inadvertently) misattuning to the child, creating a very challenging circular action/reaction dynamic. 

Let me give you a personal example of parent/child misattunement. When I was a young 5 or 6-year-old girl, I remember going out to the garage to get into the car for an outing with my mom. Feeling confident and very much like a big girl on that particular day, I thought it would be okay to take my plastic, lid-less cup of water in the car with me. No big deal, right? Wrong! My mom gently reprimanded me for attempting to bring the cup of water. She told me to take it back in the house, as we don't take cups from the house in the car.  Anyway, that single moment had a significant impact on me. I still remember the feeling it gave me and the messages I took from it: "What's wrong with me?" ""How could I possibly have thought taking my cup of water in the car was okay?" "I can't trust myself to make good decisions." Oh my! While I recovered from those thoughts, my "big girl, confident me" felt hurt that afternoon. I think I withdrew a little bit (flight), giving my mom the silent treatment for the remainder of the day. My very wonderful, loving mother inadvertently, though deeply, "pinged" me but could not have possibly known the internal message that ping gave me.

A seemingly small message or experience can have a big impact on a child because of the child's innate sensitivities, temperament, and previous life experiences that have already started informing the child's sense of self. I'm sure I didn't make that afternoon easy on my mom, and she probably had no idea why I "over-reacted." I was too young to articulate why I had the reaction I did, and I'm sure my mom could not have possibly known what just happened inside of me. Even as adults, it's sometimes difficult to articulate why we have certain reactions when we experience misattunements by our partners, family members, or friends.  

Misattunements happen all the time between people because we are all perceiving and reacting based on our own experiences and innate sensitivities. This is why you will never be a perfect parent - you cannot read your child's mind, you may not always understand when or why a simple message "pinged" their internal system. You can, however, slow down, take a deep breath, and remember that when your child is upset, there is a reason. From your point of view, the child may be "over-reacting," but to the child's young nervous system, your reaction to the "over-reaction" can make a HUGE difference.

So here you see how behaviors are learned, how momentary experiences "stick," how different children might experience similar events but respond differently, and how little "pings" can feel threatening, causing a child to respond with difficult-to-understand behaviors. Parents parent from their own beliefs, values, and perspectives, and cannot always know when a small, seemingly benign moment will have a big impact on a child. And, it's okay! These things happen. Chances are, that if your child consistently and repetitively receives messages of love, safety, connection, and belonging, he or she will have the resiliency to overcome the misattunements. See your child for his or her unique self, and continue doing your best. Notice when your own system is being "pinged," and take time for yourself. Ask yourself if there is any way that you might better attune to your child, and then remember that it's okay  to not be perfect. You can't be perfect, so relax!