In my last blog I invited the reader to consider how different the needs are for someone who has experienced significant trauma versus someone who has not. I noted how important it is for anyone who is interacting with someone with significant unresolved trauma to be mindful of the unique nature of a trauma-impacted person’s needs. I also suggested that anyone who has experienced significant trauma consider the ways this information might relate to their needs.
Trauma-impacted people typically experience powerful and profound struggles with feeling unsafe within themselves and in most relationships. Those with unresolved trauma are often victim to their own overwhelming thoughts, feelings and sensations that can re-traumatize them. Their own personal internal safety and power are greatly diminished. Many have attachment-related issues and needs, making it even harder to enter into healthy and potentially healing relationships.
Because trauma is stored as a body memory, trauma-impacted people also experience trauma-related sensations which mirror what was experienced when they were first traumatized.
Therefore, most trauma-impacted children or adults feel very alone in life, afraid of their inner worlds and unable to trust the outer world. It can feel as if there is no escape from waves of fear and anxiety related to the unresolved trauma and especially to core beliefs with messages about how they are unworthy, unlovable, repulsive, disappointing and how they don’t fit in with everyone else who appears to be so much more secure, capable and deserving of being loved.
The goal often is to just survive each day and each minute, capitulating and attempting to put on outward attitudes and behaviors that are acceptable without being able to be authentic, transparent or vulnerable. Simultaneously, the trauma-impact child or adult has deep-seated emotional and relational needs, just like everyone else, along with needs that are specific to being trauma-impacted.
Noted psychiatrist, Dr. Bruce Perry says that children and adults with unresolved trauma automatically can be presumed to be functioning in a lower brain state virtually all the time in contrast to those who do not deal with the impact of unresolved trauma. Many never move beyond alarmed and most never experience calm.
It’s virtually impossible for the trauma-impacted to think in terms of their future because a lower brain state means functioning moment-by-moment at best, and they can’t consider what life might be like in the next few hours, days or weeks. These realities for those living with unresolved trauma influences what they need and how they respond to attempts to have their needs addressed and met.
When someone is highly attuned to the needs of a trauma-impacted, they remain fully aware of the possible internal thoughts, feelings and sensations of that person and how these are constantly playing within that person’s inner world, even as they outwardly may appear reasonably calm and alert.
An essential part of helping to meet some of the needs of the trauma-impacted involves intentional use of body language, facial expressions and voice tone. People can project warmth and acceptance through each of these. Without impinging on the trauma-impacted’s personal space. This usually involves staying a little more distant than one might stand or sit with someone not struggling with unresolved trauma, the trauma-sensitive person may lean in a bit, smile gently, noticing if eye contact appears to be threatening. If so, regularly looking away can give them relief.
The trauma-sensitive person projects nonverbal messages of acceptance using their body language and facial expressions, nonverbally communicating things like “I am comfortable with whatever you are thinking or needing. There is nothing wrong with you or whatever you might be struggling with.” They give the message, “I’m ready to interact with you in whatever ways keeps you feeling safe with me.” They show a desire to connect to the trauma-impacted child or adult, “I like being around you. I appreciate you just for who you are. It doesn’t bother me if you struggle sometimes to connect with me. You can just be you.”
Anyone trying to meet the needs of a trauma-impacted person needs to be extremely patient and appreciative that they are up against an inner world of pain, fear and anxiety along with self-condemnation. It may take a long time before they are rewarded with attitudes and behaviors that show they have made progress and gradually are able to be experienced as a safe person, one that the trauma-impacted can trust and move closer towards.
Invitation to Reflect
- How aware do you think you are of the inner world of someone who is trauma-impacted? Can you imagine what it must be like to experience a constant barrage of negative thoughts as a result of the destructive beliefs most trauma-impacted children and adults experience?
- How willing are you to be patient when interacting with a trauma-impacted child or adult? How willing are you to say and do the kinds of things that are meant to promote relational safety and connection without getting positive feedback from that trauma-impacted child or adult?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute