Betrayal, painful losses, devastating natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and mass shootings can all cast a physiological residue on those left in their wake. A neuroscientific footprint that extends far beyond the experiences that caused it, but into all aspects of our lives, trauma can jeopardize our ability to experience the very relationships that can help heal it.
In The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brian in the Context of Relationships, Bonne Badenoch demonstrates how the safe sanctuaries of warm, loving relationships can help heal trauma, and how we can create them.
It has been said that successful therapy goes beyond talking. It is about feeling, sensing, and being with another person, or what Stephen Porges, who formulated the polyvagal theory calls, “accessing the third adaptive system and leveraging this system within the therapeutic setting to contain defense and enable co-regulation.”
Described as relational neuroscience, we are interwoven in ways that often lie beneath toureir conscious awareness, yet affect everyone around us. However, when we have experienced trauma, relating to others and ourselves becomes disrupted.
“If our right hemispheres harbor significant trauma in the form of unhealed fear and pain, or we feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming information, we may adaptively shift toward the left dominance in an effort to protect ourselves from a crippling onslaught of unmanageable inner and outer experience,” writes Badenoch.
Trauma is an embodied experience, affecting all of the neural pathways in our bodies, from our brains, muscles, autonomic nervous system, and primary emotional-motivational systems. The result, Badenoch writes, is “the kind of remembering that is always experienced as happening right now, no matter how distant the original event.”
Healing trauma, then, requires a presence that recognizes not only the disconfirming experience, but also what was needed but unavailable at the time of the trauma.
“Lack of support in the midst of wounding seems central to the movement from potential trauma to embedded trauma and the provision of support that is responsive to the particular nature of the wounds is equally central to healing,” writes Badenoch.
Working with trauma, however, also requires that we expand our definition of it. Joseph Bobrow created the Coming Home Project, which demonstrates the pathogenic effects of isolation and dissociation on returning veterans. Addiction can also be viewed through a different lens. Badenoch references the work of Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream, who describes the opposite of addiction not as abstinence, but connection.
The task for counselors and therapists who work with trauma is to heed the brain’s persistent call for attachment while also remaining cognizant of the neuroscientific coupling of trauma into our everyday lives.
The ability to maintain connection while experiencing intense and unsettling feelings is regulated by our nervous system’s window of tolerance, which is continually expanding and contracting. However, when with another, it is the joined window of tolerance that allows us to plumb the depths and heights of feeling that would dysregulate us if we were on our own.
“My emerging fear and pain can be embraced by the wide window of your receptive ventral presence, and in this space, healing potentially unfolds,” writes Badenoch.
Healing attendance to others also requires that we look past diagnoses to a description of responses that respects our inherent need to adapt to our environment.
“When we broaden our perspective to include the implicit pain and the fear being protected, we may be able to gain a sense of its current necessity,” writes Badenoch.
Through understanding that our neural systems are uniquely orchestrated toward attachment and connection, therapists can help trauma survivors integrate the painful and frightening experiences through holding the disconfirmation while also offering the repairing collaborative experience that is needed to heal.
The questions Badenoch encourages her readers to ponder are: Is it possible for us to begin to let go of our expectations about the shape in which healing may arrive? Can we instead trust the treatment plan that is lying dormant within us all, to cultivate a safe space between two people in which healing can begin?
The requirement is not only that therapists expand their understanding of trauma, but of their neural presence, and the ways it can join with another to shift the experience from one of pain and fear, to one of connection, attachment, and attendance.
Deepening our understanding of the inherent desire for connection, our capacity to experience the traumatic events that disrupt it, and the relational presence that heals it, Badenoch’s book should be required reading for all therapists.
The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brian in the Context of Relationships
Hardcover, 319 pages