Last week I spent some time distinguishing between betrayal trauma (the results of a one-time disclosure event and/or a long-standing pattern of abuse, neglect, etc.), triggers/PTSD (the aftershocks of betrayal trauma) and re-traumatization (new traumas on the same betrayal theme). I also pointed out that the symptoms of all of the above can be pretty much the same. Just as a review, most trauma symptoms fall into one of two major categories, hypo-arousal such as:
- Numbness (physical and/or emotional)
- Slowed digestion
- Brain fog/memory problems/difficulty communicating
- Terror/panic attacks
- Nightmares/sleeping problems
- Rage/lashing out (verbally or physically)
Why it Doesn’t Really Matter
Sometimes, though, the symptoms (or at least the severity of the symptoms) are different depending on whether we are experiencing a first-ever discovery, a trigger or re-traumatization. We may find a trigger around the initial discovery is less severe than the symptoms we face with a re-traumatization because of a new disclosure… or we might not.
The fact is, it can be difficult to predict how our brain/body is going to receive any “acute stress” blow because it’s not just about the size of the punch… it’s also about our all-round capacity to receive such a blow. Our capacity is affected by many things including:
- The techniques we know for grounding ourselves
- Other stressors currently affecting our system
- The “maturity” of our brain (not so much about age as having well-developed neural pathways that lead from negative emotion/survival centres, back to our joy/peace centres and identity centres)
- External resources: social, emotional, spiritual, even financial; particularly important is a sense that my resources provide a way “I could escape”
- Whether this blow strikes at a previous wound, e.g., a core attachment injury
So from the point of view of our brain, it doesn’t so much matter whether it’s betrayal trauma, a trigger or a re-traumatization. Any of these can cause us to lose the capacity to act like ourselves—which is trauma in a nutshell.
Why it Does Matter
And yet, if we are going to expand our capacity to be ourselves when traumatized and acutely stressed we do need to think about the source stressor. Our “survival brain” has no ability to discern current danger from past. But, if we can begin to slow ourselves down with grounding and bring our thinking brain back online, we can work this out. This is why grounding is the first step for all trauma work. For those who are struggling with grounding, be on the look out for some external supports who can assist you.
After we have developed the skill of bringing our thinking brain back online, it’s a pretty easy next step to say, “Is this about the past or is it about the present?” If it’s the present, the question becomes, “Am I in immediate danger or is it longer-term danger?” Immediate danger is something we should act quickly to avoid. Longer-term danger (e.g., my husband seems to be preparing to leave me) also requires us to take action, but thoughtfully, over a period of time appropriate to the danger, and hopefully with support.
Ongoing re-traumatization—though it may be about stuff that our husband did in the (often recent) past—creates a “present danger,” just as much as if he is re-traumatizing us through abuse. The danger is this: if my brain and body keep getting thrown into crisis because of his betrayal, I am at risk for developing complex PTSD… with all the physical, mental, emotional and relational problems that brings. This is a longer-term danger but one that we would be wise not to ignore. It is very difficult to expand our capacity under an ongoing barrage of betrayal trauma.
And what if our trauma symptoms are completely, or at least mostly, about the past? This is where we work to develop our capacity (as explained above). However, you’ll probably notice that a lot of the above seems rather outside of our control. Other stressors? Maturity? Core attachment injuries? This is why it is very difficult to heal from betrayal trauma without ongoing support. Below is our capacity list again with some ideas for supports:
- Grounding: counsellor/coach (learning), friends, family, husband (co-regulation)
- Other stressors: possibly same as above, plus “group”
- Maturity: other mature people who can “sit with us” in our pain and help us return to joy (e.g., spiritual mentor, counsellor/coach, group facilitator, mature friends
- Social, etc.: support group, counselor/coach, friend, family, spiritual mentors, husband
- Attachment injury: counselor, spiritual mentor (and others if the injury is around “belonging” or “rejection
There’s one resource that I didn’t mention above that has everything we need to expand our capacity… God.
God designed our brains for joyful, grace-filled connection with himself and others. However, He is the only one who can always tell us (through scripture, through the revelation of his character in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit's work in us to understand that character): “I desire to be with you, you are precious and I have given everything to be with you.” And, when we are in a place of suffering (often because of grace-less, joyless disconnection), He can join us there, demonstrate compassion and then show us, after a time, the way back to the place of peace… the place where we know we are desired, accepted and “not alone.”
This Promised Land, where God wants to lead us is the opposite of trauma. It is the “everlasting joy” that He has said will be our inheritance… some day.