I was doubled over in a fetal position, curled up under my desk. Unable to control the crying, I began to tremble and shake. The fear that overcame me was equally sudden and unexpected. It happened in the aftermath of a dramatic breakup, and coincided with the anniversary of my father’s premature death. That was the last time I experienced an acute panic attack.
Had I known about developmental trauma and the way it configures our brains to turn ordinary stimuli into perceptions of threat and danger, I would have been better equipped to manage my emotions during that time. Instead, I was transformed by the reminder of strong feelings associated with my past trauma and history of loss.
Developmental trauma is characterized by exposure to multiple traumas, usually of an interpersonal nature, that occur during the early stages of life when our brains are still incredibly malleable.
Developmental trauma can occur if you’ve suffered from childhood abandonment or neglect, witnessed or were victim to domestic violence, were subject to verbal, emotional, sexual or physical abuse, experienced early illness or birth complications, or experienced the death of a caretaker or close relative. Often, developmental trauma is connected to issues in attachment with parents.
Trauma in early life can contribute to a range of problems, including an inability to self-regulate, social withdrawal or aggression, periods of numbing and dissociation, hyperarousal, and abnormal startle responses. High states of arousal promote the retrieval of traumatic memories as well as the behavior and sensory information associated with these memories. When rhesus monkeys experience early, severe maternal deprivation they tend to respond to loud noises with fear. Under hyperarousal, an animal will seek whatever is familiar, even if that means subjecting oneself to pain and suffering. The aforementioned rhesus monkeys did just that when they returned to a barbed wire facsimile of their mothers for comfort.
Affect regulation, or the ability to regulate emotions and to effectively calm oneself down when necessary, is a skill that requires healthy development in the brain’s emotional processing networks. Moreover the ability to self-regulate is an important precursor to having a coherent sense of self and other.
The ability to self-regulate is an important precursor to having a coherent sense of self and other.
In neurofeedback, we help people learn to better tolerate uncomfortable feelings, sensations, and to develop the skill of emotional regulation. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk writes that neurofeedback helps to “change the habitual brain patterns created by trauma and its aftermath. When the fear patterns relax, the brain becomes less susceptible to automatic stress reactions and better able to focus on ordinary events.”
Over the past six months of training with neurofeedback, I have noticed that I feel more settled and less agitated. The traumas of my youth are still present in my daily life, but their tone has become muted, as if the volume has been dialed down. When stressful situations occur, I feel calm and collected rather than disorganized or distraught. Potential triggers of trauma have lost much of their emotional charge, which in the past contributed to my anxiety and sense of panic.
After the first session of neurofeedback, I noticed an instant feeling of clarity that I had only felt once in my life during a meditation retreat. I felt physically lighter. I realized a reorientation was taking place that was directing me towards a reservoir of calm, a deeply resourceful part of myself. A bit later in my treatment, I had a uniquely vivid, powerful dream in which I was wading through knee-deep water. Suddenly, I saw my father start sinking into the sand. In the dream, I ran to rescue him, and wrapped my arms around his legs in a futile attempt to save his life. I woke up feeling shocked, and the image of my father sinking into the earth lingered with me for several days.
After the first session of neurofeedback, I noticed an instant feeling of clarity that I had only felt once in my life during a meditation retreat.
I believe this dream represented some of the primal fear I was holding onto in my subconscious. Through talk therapy, I could connect the dream to others of a similar nature: recurring dreams of being lost underwater, of being blind, of my home being flooded by the ocean. I had stumbled upon the crux of my instability, which was the fear of being rendered helpless, a fear which was intimately connected to the death of my father.
Most of us have lived through some experience of trauma. Neurofeedback allows us to re-wire the impact these experiences created on a physiological and neurological level. Combined with somatic-based interventions such as deep breathing, heart-rate variability training, guided relaxation, as well as psychotherapy, we can learn how to let go of the past by integrating painful memories, and in so doing, learn to live more fully in the present.