Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

The Effect of Trauma on Behavior and Communication

We’re wired to respond from the world around us. This is especially true when we are young children, because our brains are absorbing our experiences. This is how we learn to make sense of the world. 

But what happens if the world around us isn’t safe? What if we’re told (with words or actions) that our needs aren’t important?  What if the protection we’re wired to seek isn’t there? Our young brains learn to adapt, so that we can survive. We become very aware of our environment. We’re always on the lookout for danger. We aren’t able to experience calm, joy, happiness because those parts of our brain weren’t developed.

So when we grow up, our brains are wired by our experiences. And that affects how we act. We assume people won’t be there for us, or aren’t trustworthy, or that our needs won’t be met. Maybe we stop asking for anything, because we’ve been trained that we won’t get it. Or maybe it’s the opposite: we seek attention and act out, because that’s what we learned was effective. There are lots of other behaviors and protections that we may have learned in order to survive.

And so, because of our traumas, it’s hard to be present in the current moment. When we experience something in the present, our brains are wired to respond to something similar that happened in the past.  A “story we make up” that isn’t actually true, but, in the moment, seems very real.  Some examples:

  • People aren’t trustworthy, so anyone I date will eventually break up with me. I’d better push them away first so I don’t get hurt.

  • I’m not worthy of anything good, so I won’t be successful at whatever I’m trying.

  • Anything good will get taken away, so I will sabotage it first, so I don’t get hurt.

  • That compliment wasn’t real. It was said to manipulate me, so I can’t accept it.

Clinically, individuals who have experienced trauma as children, whether big-T or small-t, will have some impact on their brain development. This commonly shows up as a deficiency in one or more neurotransmitter pathways, especially dopamine, serotonin, or endorphin. Overdevelopment of norepinephrine is also common.

The pathways are deficient because the client did not get the nurturing, attunement, and bonding that fuels development of these pathways.  When we explain this to clients struggling with addiction, most clients feel a sense of relief. They understand it isn’t lack of willpower, or bad morals, or their own shortcomings.  And when we explain that the brain pathways can be fixed, clients feel a sense of hope and empowerment.