Updated: Aug 2, 2019
The Parts of you are always working hard to adapt to your environment. What happens when you are put in a scary, dangerous, or traumatic situation? How do the Parts of you cope?
Sarah Freeze MSW, Dr. Allyson Cole, and Dr. Jasmine Narayan
Create Outcomes Psychological Services
We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to. -Brené Brown
In our last article, we explained how and why Parts develop and we hope by now it is clear that our various Parts develop for a purpose – they help us adapt and in many instances, they help to protect us. Remember Joe’s story? He grew up facing criticism from his parents for his creative ways and he developed a successful professional Part that allowed him to adapt to the demands of his parents, but ultimately left him unhappy.
We shared Joe’s story because we all have examples of ways in which our childhood interactions have shaped the way our Parts have developed and ultimately become who we are now. What happens when someone experiences something scary or threatening? How does the experience of trauma effect the development of our self-states? This is exactly what we hope to demonstrate in this article.
A certain smell, object, or a fragment of a memory can cause an intense reaction.
What is Trauma and How Does it Affect Us?
By dictionary definition, trauma is any event that has a lasting negative effect. It can involve physical harm or threaten our emotional safety. Trauma can be experienced or witnessed. It can be a one-time event or ongoing (Shapiro & Forrest, 2016). When something scary or traumatic happens the brain’s natural alarm system goes on high alert. You’ve probably heard of the fight-flight-freeze response. This is our brain’s way of making sure we are able to survive when something frightening is happening. To put it simply, certain functions of the mind and body shut down or are redirected so that we can get to safety.
For instance, you’re not going to be thinking about your grocery list when your attention is on deciding to either face the danger (fight) or run away (flight). In the case of a severe trauma that is inescapable, your mind will protect you from experiencing it fully by “going somewhere else” (freeze) (Porges, 2011).
Therefore, unlike all of the information that your brain is constantly processing every day, traumatic information can get “stuck,” and then needs to be revisited over and over whenever there is a similar signal of fear (Shapiro & Forrest, 2016). Even if the person does not remember the traumatic event, the mind has learned to scan the environment for any sign of a similar danger to reactivate the mind’s alarm system. This happens even when you are actually safe; a certain smell, object, or a fragment of a memory from the trauma can cause an intense reaction (Porges, 2011).
The Part is Created at the Age the Trauma Occurred:
Have you ever had a reaction to something in your adult life that seemed out of proportion to the circumstance? Maybe it was an angry reaction that hurt someone you care about when there was no reason for such a big emotional response. These moments may be what we call a trauma trigger. It is something that happens in your present life that triggers a past trauma and causes us to respond in the way that made sense at the time the trauma occurred. Because a child can have creative ways of protecting oneself, we can become confused about why we are responding to situations in our adult life that don’t make sense.
The way that a child/person has learned to protect their self from a traumatic event develops into a Part of their character in adult life. Remember from our past articles that Parts develop from our past interactions/experiences with loved ones, and these Parts are used to navigate the world. Let’s look at Amy’s story to demonstrate how her ongoing traumatic experiences created a Part of her in childhood that shaped the way she functioned in relationships in her adult life.
Story of how Amy’s Part developed:
When Amy was 5 years old, her mother began allowing her to spend every day after school and weekends with her alcoholic father. Her father was quiet and usually caring even when he was drunk; however, he would expect that Amy was present at his house to take care of his feelings and ease his loneliness. As Amy grew, she felt responsible for her dad’s happiness and she spent most of her childhood trying to cheer him up. Her dad would respond by saying things like, “Without you, there would be no reason to go on.”
As her father’s alcoholism worsened, Amy found herself in many dangerous situations where she was in charge of keeping her father safe. She kept these moments a secret from her mom, as she knew she would no longer be allowed to go to her father’s house if her mom knew how dangerous it was becoming. In high school, her father’s alcoholism continued to worsen to the point of him needing Amy to be present to help him get through mild seizures and lapses in brain functioning. Midway through high school, Amy decided that she would no longer help her dad so she could focus on school. Amy’s father died within weeks of her ceasing to visit as frequently. For Amy, this confirmed that what he had said was true; he couldn’t live without her and had died because of her absence.
Amy felt exhausted at all times and had many relationships in which she gave more than she received.
Amy developed a Part of her that becomes activated anytime she is in a relationship that is meaningful to her. She now feels responsible for people she cares about, as her mind is signaling to her that in order to help loved ones stay alive she must figure out how to take care of them. People love Amy for this reason, so before coming to therapy she had many friends who wanted to be around her, but Amy felt exhausted all the time and had many relationships in which she gave more than she received. To cope with this, she needed alcohol to help soothe her when she was with friends.
Amy was initially critical of the way she would get overwhelmed and then do things she was not proud of. Through therapy, she began understanding how this Part of her was created to protect her. Amy began to have more empathy for herself and her self-worth increased, along with the joy she experienced in her relationships. Her understanding of this Part also allowed her to heal from the terrifying experiences with her father, and see when this Part of her was keeping her from receiving in her current relationships.
This is the crux of working with trauma and central to our therapeutic approach. Our clinicians are trained to help you understand a younger part and show him/her that the scary experience is over. We help you truly feel that you got through it and you can protect yourself if you need to!
With this approach, we invite the wise parts of you to care deeply for the parts of you who are hurting. We let your younger part know that he or she is off the hook–he or she gets to just be a kid and the adult will take care of the rest. You have the power to regain control over your life, move forward, and heal.
Next time, we will continue to use Amy’s story to demonstrate how parts can have different reactions to what has happened. When trauma occurs in relationships with our caregivers, it can leave people in a constant tell/don’t tell state.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment,communication, and self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
Shapiro, F., & Forrest, M. S. (2016). EMDR: The breakthrough therapy for overcoming anxiety, stress, and trauma. Basic Books.