Complex Trauma, a failure to thrive?

Your brain is a prediction machine. The best in the universe by far. Your brain is constantly creating and revising your mental schemas through predictions and corrections. One of the brain’s main functions is to make sure you stay alive, and this is how we humans have been able to accomplish and progress. We use the prediction machine to forecast danger or predict sustenance. But, what happens when your brain predicts sub optimally and doesn’t correct? Well, we miss a meal or find ourselves in dangerous circumstances. But if the poor predictions become chronic then psychopathology is the result. The dysregulation in our prediction machine promotes a fixed closed view of the world. Combine that with an internal alarm system that is primed for danger due to historical circumstances and complex trauma is the result. Complex trauma shares commonalities with PTSD in that both diagnoses are preserved through the false reality created by the traumatized brain. That is right, your brain creates a false reality in which every response or stimuli you encounter recruits some historical trauma that is weighted with the internal alarm system. The fight, flight, and freeze response. You respond unconsciously as if you are re-living and re-experiencing that trauma, even though you are in the present. While consciously you know you are in the present, your body remembers (and is always keeping the score!). Therefore, your body hijacks your brain, and says, “listen we’ve been through this before, we know how to react,” without the wherewithal to evaluate the situation: “how am I feeling in this moment, where am I feeling it in my body, am I really in danger? Etc”. The beauty of your brain is that it will go to great lengths to make sure you survive, well in fact that is all it really cares about! So normative stressful experiences may be processed in the brain as “DANGER.” Remember, we need healthy amounts of stress to encourage stem cell growth which then becomes brain cells! So stress is not necessarily the main culprit, but our adaptations and resiliency to stress (or lack thereof) is what ultimately decides how our body and brain responds to the stressor.

What turns PTSD into complex PTSD? Duration and time. If you are exposed to trauma and stress over a prolonged period, and are unable to cope with all of it, your brain learns to “adapt” the best it can with what it has. Most of the time, these adaptations may have allowed us to “survive,” but we are by no means thriving. Complex trauma skews our ability to attend to ourselves and others in relation to the world. We may have issues in emotional regulation, interpersonal relationships, and sense of self. Complex trauma can also impact your physical health as it can weaken your immune system, produce chronic muscle tension, cause issues with sleep and more. Those that have CPTSD often are not reacting to specific triggers, rather they are reacting from a chronic stress response state that leads the persons internal regulation system to become out of balance. From an autonomic nervous system perspective, they cannot maintain a state of equilibrium. They are not going into the rest and digest portion of life and continue depleting their internal resources. This causes the individual to not respond to situations and events in the most optimal way, further keeping them in a chronic stress state. All your emotions, cognition and movements are influenced by this internal world you have created to “protect” you from threats, even when no threats exist. Remember, all your brain cares about is making sure you survive, so it will adjust its resources to preserve as much energy as possible. You move through the world with red colored glasses, nothing feels safe, not even your retreat into your internal world. ISF Neurofeedback provides a way for individuals with CPTSD to regulate their internal states, by regulating their internal state we can lower anxiety and individuals can better address their emotional states, worldviews and improve their connections with themselves and others.

Olivia Kalinich, LMHC

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