February 14, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I recently attended a two-day seminar for mental health professionals on trauma. I spent those days drinking from a gushing fire hydrant of information about all aspects of trauma which included: its detrimental impact on psychological well-being, its physiological effects on the brain, and what can be done in the present to bring repair to what was damaged in the past.

I had a client tell me once that she had never thought of herself as a trauma victim—until recently. Her family had its share of dysfunctions, to be sure, but she had no history of those specific events which we commonly think of as traumatic such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, or rape. She was a wacky-family survivor, yes, but trauma victim, no. Or so she thought.

But with the passage of time, she’s come to realize that years of exposure to family dysfunction was just as damaging as traumatic events might have been. Like a non-smoker developing cancer from repeatedly inhaling second-hand smoke, simply breathing the air of family drama had wired her brain in such a way that it now needed to be rewired.

Here are three common trauma-inducing features of family dramas:

Impaired Ability to Relax

I hate snakes, probably because I grew up in Mississippi where venomous varieties of these “Mr. No Shoulders” slithered around our yard.

Imagine being forced to stay in a hotel room for a solid month where all your meals would be delivered by room service. And keeping you company in that room was a rattlesnake. Sometimes you saw it, sometimes you didn’t. How comfortably could you sleep at night knowing that you might wake up with it laying next to you in bed? How could you take a shower knowing it might slither into the tub to join you? Even if the snake never bit you during that month, you’d be physiologically altered by the experience. Having your threat mechanisms in a constant state of arousal would traumatize you every bit as much as an actual snake bite.

Chronic exposure to perceived danger is a characteristic of family dramas and can produce the same physiological alternations as specific traumatic events.

Impaired Ability to Feel

We’re all familiar with stories of soldiers who get wounded in battle but don’t know it until the battle’s over. The danger of the moment numbed the pain of the wound which isn’t discovered until the shooting stops. As strange as it might seem, that’s the way our brains are wired. We need all our resources to survive in the moment, so feelings aren’t felt until survival is assured.

Over the years, I’ve had many clients walk me through their family histories. Sometimes, they’ll tell me something shocking, like: Dad put up naked pictures of Mom all over the house. (Note: I’ve had clients tell me that more than once). This prompts from me one of those stereotypical shrink questions: “How did that make you feel?” “Um, I don’t know, I guess I never thought of it as a big deal,” is what I’ll sometimes hear in reply.

The client’s story elicited in me feelings of shock and revulsion (normal, to-be-expected emotions) but for them, recounting the tale stirred up all the emotion of eating a peanut butter sandwich. This creepy family practice was so commonplace that their normal feelings had become anesthetized

Impaired Ability to Reason

I’m stating this in a way that’s oversimplified but, like a seesaw, when the threat-response part of your brain goes up, the reasoning part of your brain goes down. But your reasoning ability improves when the threat response becomes less activated. That’s why it’s not wise to make major decisions in the midst of a crisis.

Living in perpetual drama crisis can impair one’s ability to think clearly, reason effectively, and make wise decisions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that those underdeveloped abilities can be developed later on.

I’ll tell you one last thing I heard at the trauma conference that I found very useful. Don’t you love it when you hear something that reinforces what you already believe? This is one of those things. That is:

Research has concluded that the single most important element in trauma recovery is, wait for it, relationships. Relationships in the present bring repair to what was damaged in relationships of the past.

That’s how our underdeveloped parts get developed. We learn in current safe relationships what we couldn’t learn in past dangerous relationships.

And that’s good news, is it not?

Till next week.

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