Telling stories about childhood trauma can heal your life

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ABC Bookstore Blog Post

2nd July 2020 (Updated on 18th August 2020)

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The circle of life, and the value of stories: The silent witness of early childhood trauma

By Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling: Copyright (c) Jim Byrne 2020

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Introduction

Telling stories is good psychotherapyI believe that each of us is a silent witness of our early childhood experiences. We do not know what happened to us unless and until somebody helps us to make a story or stories out of our raw experiences.

You may have noticed this phenomenon: Sometimes in a cop show, or murder mystery, on TV, there’s a witness who knows something which is relevant to solving the crime or mystery. But this witness is unaware that they have witnessed something which is very important, which could be helpful in solving the case.

I believe each of us is like that witness. Let me explain:

Recently I’ve been reading three books that deal with complex, post-traumatic stress disorder:

Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.

Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.

And Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.

One of the things that struck me about all three books is that each of the authors have to tell a personal story to illustrate the journey that got them to study trauma. There is nothing impersonal about their expertise; and their personal stories underpin their professional practices.

Many years ago, I had a set of serendipitous experiences which unearthed some strange stories from my own ‘internal silent witness’. The first happened in Bangladesh in 1977. Up to that point, nobody had ever expressed any curiosity about my life. And I had – consequently – no story about life, which I could know and share with the world.

Asking others about their stories is good therapyI met Carla in Bangladesh, and she was intensely curious about my life, and especially my childhood. I told her some bits and pieces from the very edges of my conscious awareness, and she was appalled at how painful my childhood had been – how physically and emotionally I’d been abused. I was amazed at the emotions that came up them: the painful memories that welled back.  What I had taken to be ‘normal life’ turned out to be quite brutally unusual – or at least not how children should be raised, by parents who love their children, and want them to be happy.

Two years later, back in the UK, I met Renata (my wonderful wife of 34 years), and she was studying various disciplines, including Gestalt therapy. As a result, she was able to help me to explore my childhood some more. Out of my conversations with Renata, I got a lot of little stories about my weird childhood: some funny; some saddening; and some angering.

Over time, two major stories emerged: My Story of Origins (as a country boy in a city school, who failed to make a single friend in ten years of schooling). And My Story of Relationship (especially my insecure attachment to my cruel mother). Both of these stories now appear in a forthcoming book, which you can read about here: Recovery from Childhood Trauma: How I healed my heart and mind – and how you can heal yourself.

Whole cover,3

Later, I expanded those two stories to include a good deal of my journey from birth to eventual relationship happiness.

Update: And I have written that bizarre journey up in a three-volume, fictionalized autobiographical story, which you can read about here: The Broken Chain Conundrum.***

Whole cover, Broken Chain, 1

And, at the moment, I am rewriting another of my books, which is designed as a self-help guide for individuals who want to work on their childhood trauma. You can read some information about that book here: Transforming Traumatic Dragons: How to recover from a history of trauma – using a whole body-brain-mind approach

Whole cover 2, Dragons Trauma book June 2020

Without the curiosity of Carla and Renata, all of my unknown stories would still be festering inside of my neurotic, subconscious mind-brain-body; instead of having been externalized, ventilated, and healed.

What kinds of stories does your Silent Witness have in raw, gut-feeling form, which could benefit from being written up, or talked out?

What happened to you that needs to be aired and witnessed by a caring other?

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cropped-abc-bookstore-maximal-charles-2019-1.jpgThat’s all for today.

Best wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling, Authorship Coach and Trauma Therapist

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How to heal your childhood trauma

Blog Post – 24th June 2020

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Refinement of my book on ‘Facing and defeating your emotional dragons’

By Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

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Introduction

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the refinement of my main book on processing traumatic memories. Because trauma is such a complex phenomenon, and lots of new ideas have been developed in the past ten years or so, it is taking some time to clarify my revised process of trauma therapy.

Here is an extract from the Preface to the revised, updated and expanded edition:

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Facing and Defeating your Emotional Dragons:

How to process old traumas, and eliminate undigested pain from your past experience

By Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

Copyright © Jim Byrne, June 2020:

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Preface to the Revised Edition, 2020

By Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

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1. Preamble

Front cover, dragonsEarly childhood trauma (like physical and emotional abuse, and neglect), and other forms of prolonged trauma (like domestic abuse), affect the very structure of the human brain, and the behaviour of stress hormones in the body. This insight is expressed by Dr Daniel Siegel as follows:

“…(T)raumatic experiences at the beginning of life may have profound effects on the integrative structures of the brain… (A)bused children have abnormal responses of their stress hormone levels[1]… Cortisol (a major stress hormone) is sustained, and elevated levels can become toxic to the brain[2].”

And, cortisol and other stress hormones are secreted throughout the body when it’s under pressure.

In the first and second editions of this book, we made the mistake of overlooking the role of the body in storing traumatic memories; and the need to involve the body in the resolution of traumatic memories.

This revised, expanded and updated edition is intended to correct that omission, which was paradoxical, given that our main claim to fame, at the Institute for Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT), is that we “added back the body” to the rational, cognitive and psychodynamic models of the individual client in counselling and therapy. The body is the very foundation of the human personality; which is actually a body-brain-mind, as shaped by social experience.

In this preface we want to address the following contextual questions: What is trauma? What is post-traumatic stress disorder? What is Complex-PTSD? How widespread is Complex-PTSD? What are Adverse Childhood Experiences? What are some solutions to Childhood Developmental Trauma or Complex-PTSD? The meaning and importance of the concept of Traumatic Dragons. And finally, a brief overview of the content of this book.

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2. What is trauma?

Front cover, dragonsAccording to my Oxford English Dictionary, trauma means: “… (1) a deeply distressing experience. … (And) (3) emotional shock following a stressful event”. (Soanes, 2002, page 893)[3].

And my Oxford Dictionary of Psychology says it’s: “…a powerful psychological shock that has damaging effects”. (Colman, 2002, page 755)[4].

To further clarify the meaning of ‘trauma’, let us take a look at how Sue Gerhardt, a psychotherapist who deals with childhood trauma, defines this concept.  She describes the opening scene of the film, Fearless, in which Jeff Bridges plays the role of a man who survives a plane crash, with several others. He looks at the scene of devastation without a flicker of concern; walks away; gets into a taxi, and leaves the burning plane, ambulances, fellow survivors, and fire engines behind him. His friend and business partner has died in the crash; so, not surprisingly, the Jeff Bridges’ character is ‘traumatized’. As Gerhardt writes (describing how this character is when he returns to his home life):

“His relationships are affected: he has difficulty relating to his wife and son, and starts instead to form a bond with another survivor who lost her baby. He has flash backs to the crash, reliving the moments as the plane went down. He impulsively takes extreme risks with his body, walking blithely across a busy highway. He is dissociated (or detached – JB) from reality”. (Gerhardt, 2010, page 133).

Trauma disrupts our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. And, in the case of prolonged childhood trauma, the damage also affects:

– personality development;

– the ability to think critically/logically (cognitive development);

– the ability to engage effectively in social relationships;

– and the ability to regulate one’s emotions (which can therefore escalate into inappropriate shame, anxiety, anger, guilt and depression).

Front cover, dragonsIndeed, as Dr Bessel van der Kolk (2015) writes, “All trauma is preverbal”. Traumatized individuals cannot find words to express their terrible feelings. They may freeze, like statues; or fight verbally or physically, with the wrong people; or find various ways of running away, as if you could run away from your own central nervous system’s panicky arousal! They may also ‘fawn’ over others to placate them, if they were bullied and abused by their parents.

As Van der Kolk expresses it: “Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. Their bodies re-experience terror, rage, and helplessness, as well as the impulse to fight or flee, but these feelings are almost impossible to articulate. Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past”. (Page 43).

Van der Kolk has worked with traumatized individuals for decades, including war-damaged soldiers and victims of childhood abuse and neglect. And his insights and approach to the subject have also been strongly influenced by working closely with Dr Judith Herman (1994/2015), who has been in the field even longer than him, and who has mainly worked with female victims of childhood sexual abuse, adult rape and domestic violence.

Eventually, trauma sufferers do come up with what Van der Kolk calls “a cover story”, which is their best attempt to tell a story which accounts for their trauma; but it rarely captures the essence of the experience. “It is enormously difficult to organize one’s traumatic experiences into a coherent account – a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end”.

I know that this is true from my own experience.  I only became aware of my own prolonged childhood abuse when I was thirty years old, and I met a woman who cared enough to listen to my story, and to tell me “that was not normal.  And that – what they did to you – was not okay!”

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Front cover, dragonsTrauma does not just affect our consciousness; our memories; our minds. Modern neuroscience, since the 1990’s, has revealed to us just how much the brains of traumatized individuals are changed (for the worst) by their horrible experiences.  Trauma leaves its imprint on our brain, our mind and our body. And these imprints affect how we think, feel and behave in later life, even decades after the traumatic experience. Trauma changes our perceptions, and our capacity to think. But even when we begin to think/feel about our traumatic experience – and to create a helpful story of what happened – we are still left with the imprints in our bodies: the automatic physical and hormonal responses to present-time reminders of the trauma inflicted on us back there, back then.  The ‘there and then’ is always with us, in our bodies, here and now: unless and until we process those physical and hormonal responses. To quote Van der Kolk again: “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed, and to live in the reality of the present”. (Page 21).

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In this section I have presented two kinds of trauma: discrete experiences of trauma, like the plane crash; and protracted experiences of trauma, like prolonged childhood abuse. It is important to be clear about the distinction between the first – which is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – and the second, which is called developmental trauma, or Complex-PTSD.

Let us first define PTSD. …

For more, please click this link: How to resolve childhood trauma.***

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Dr Jim's officeThat’s all for now.

Best wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

Email dr jim.byrne @ gmail.com

Telephone: 01422 843 629

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