Creating Healthy Relationships & The Importance of Healing from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Childhood Trauma

The effects of trauma have a tremendous impact on our ability and capacity to create satisfying bonds with other people. Trauma can be the result of child abuse, sexual violence, date rape, racism, sexism, and verbal attacks. Trauma does not have to manifest physically to have a profound and lasting effect on the brain. It also doesn’t have to be a one-time event; “slow drip” trauma can form over years, such as the experience of being neglected as a child. Perhaps you were sent to good schools, fed, and clothed, but  no one hugged you, no one asked you how you were feeling when you seemed sad—this is still trauma.

When my daughter was about two months old, I went to her baby carriage to adjust her baby blanket. We made eye contact, and she wiggled her tiny toes and gleefully smiled. Suddenly my heart started racing, my hands began shaking, and I felt engulfed with an escalating feeling of anxiety that made my head feel at risk of floating away. My anxiety kept rising for a minute or two but it felt like hours. I had no idea what was going on. My husband asked me if I was ok. I told him I was feeling really scared—he asked why, but I had no clear reason. He held my hand as we walked slowly through our neighborhood. Eventually I was able to take deep breathes, and my heartbeat started to calm. But I was spooked and afraid that I would feel that way again.

I found an excellent therapist who described what was happening to me as flashbacks to traumatic events in my childhood. The technical term is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,  which is caused by violent events. This sounds extremely grim. I loved my parents very much, but the truth is that they were not able to function as well as they might have—caring for and protecting me at times presented a huge challenge for them. In studying their lives—I later discovered that they were both trauma survivors—I was challenged to heal my transgenerational internalized wounding and patterning.

After the baby carriage incident, I had other moments in which I felt flooded with fear—for no apparent reason. The odd thing about my flashbacks was that they started happening at a time when my life was quite wonderful. I was stunned and annoyed that these feelings were surfacing all of a sudden. Because the odd thing about my flashbacks to the chaos of my upbringing, was that they started happening at a time when my life was quite wonderful. I felt triumphant as a first-time mom. In fact, I had willfully overcome so many negative family patterns:  I had a kind, loving husband. I had overcome a chronic cycle of binge eating. I had ended unhealthy relationships to narcissistic people that I seemed preternaturally attracted to. It felt unjust that after so much diligence and work these uncomfortable feelings would be bubbling to the surface now.

What I hadn’t realized was that even though I had divested myself from unhealthy behaviors and people, I still had to integrate parts of myself that were shattered by the trauma. I was to learn that part of the reason the repressed feelings were surfacing was because I was in a stronger, better place to do this next part of my healing

Trauma from abuse, rape, incest, and other forms of violence has a profound effect on the brain and the psyche. Extensive research on this subject shows that the brain itself can be changed by trauma.  One way this manifests is by the brain staying in a state of hyperarousal.  Our brain has a built-in response to danger that is designed to keep us safe, giving us the ability to escape or otherwise deal with the threat. But when that threat is ongoing or particularly violent, your nervous system can remain in a state of hyper alert. Even after a person is out of danger—away from the disturbing event or person—the nervous system can be in overdrive and continue to respond to “triggers” that may be completely benign. This can go on for years.

In my case, my daughter’s tiny size, her complete dependency on me, and her vulnerability triggered in me a multitude of feelings associated with not being properly cared for when I was a child. Her very being triggered a profound fear in me: How can I keep this innocent, defenseless baby safe—when I wasn’t safe? Years later—although I would not have said it at the time—I am glad that these feelings, memories, and parts of me emerged to be understood and integrated. It has made me a stronger person and a better mother. I also feel much more serenity and peace.

Fortunately, research is also showing that the brain can heal from the negative effects of trauma. The process of healing from trauma—especially if the trauma happened at the hands of trusted caregivers or authority figures—can be a long journey. There are many resources: individual therapy, PTSD groups, and meditation focused on body awareness and soothing, to name just a few. I have found that steady work yields grounded long-term results.

But here’s the thing: when trauma happens at the hands of other people, true healing can really only happen via meaningful relationships with others. When we are able to create stable, loving bonds with even just one person, we have achieved tremendous progress.

Untreated trauma will prevent authentic relationships with children, partners, and others. Part of healing trauma is being able to heal our wounded instincts. Ongoing abuse can start to feel “familiar’ to the point that we expect and prepare for negative relationships.

These responses are designed to keep us safe. They can be healthy responses when dealing with danger. But where the trouble begins is when your brain activates your nervous system into hyperarousal—but there is no danger or the present danger is being seen through the child you were when you were originally wounded. There are situations that are challenging even dangerous but I can handle them as an adult with my adult resources. In my case the birth of my daughter triggered my brain to hyperarousal—having an innocent defenseless baby around triggered fear—How can I make her safe—when I wasn’t safe? Logically as an adult I could make my daughter safe. But I was viewing the situation through the eyes of a very scared six year old—without help or protection.

Many people who have survived personal trauma go on to enter relationships that are better than they’ve ever experienced. However at some point, healthy interactions may feel frighteningly unfamiliar to the degree that they initiate fights—because warfare in relationships is what they know from their childhoods. Other survivors may be triggered by intimacy, which can result in a numbing response. Ways that people numb out are through binge drinking, overworking, excessive TV watching, or drug use. The result of fighting or numbing out in your relationship could be that you unwittingly start to diminish intimacy and connection.

You don’t have to be perfect to be in a healthy relationship, but knowing when you are triggered and what you need will put you in a better position to have healthy, stable relationships. Understanding ourselves can be a confusing process. I have many friends who have healed trauma. I depend on them for “reality checks”. When something upsetting happens—which some weeks can feel like they happen hourly—I reach out to a trusted friend who understands this process of coming back to oneself. I check in and get some feedback. Sometimes we get a good laugh—if for example I used a metaphoric sledgehammer to swat a fly.

If we want to create safe, healthy, open bonds with people—the need to deal with ones trauma is a crucial part of the process of being intimate. If we ignore or bury our wounds we may never learn to sustain loving relationships. There are times we can be so triggered that we aren’t sure if we are being victimized in the moment. Wading through this confusion, sorting out what’s real and what may be an overreaction from the past, and what is a healthy response to present danger is the work. We are putting ourselves back together again, but not perfectly—as Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”