Trauma, Developmental Trauma, and Defining Traumatic Moments

Like most psychologists I have never questioned the impacts of Trauma, as defined by the APA as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster,” on the experience functioning, and development of an individual. However, through my years of therapeutic practice I have come to a deep appreciation of the impact that less-obvious traumatic experiences can have on a person’s personality and the way they experience themselves and the world. Less-obvious traumatic experiences include Developmental Trauma and what I am referring to as Defining Traumatic Moments. While these experiences may not include a direct threat to ones physical integrity and safety, they none-the-less impact the brain and create any manner of False Beliefs about the self thus impacting the way an individual interacts with with world and others.

False Beliefs Caused By Trauma

In addition to the physical discomfort of the anxiety caused by trauma, the pain that most of my patients experience resulting from trauma, at any level of severity, involves the development of negative self-beliefs. A traumatic experience often causes the development of a false belief about who one is and what one can expect from life, others, and the world. Often these beliefs are held at a feeling level rather than a thought level, meaning that the person may “know” the belief is false, but they may “feel” that it is true. 

Sometimes people are aware that there is a divide between what they feel and what they think, and other times felt beliefs are not as obvious but continue to influence one's feeling and behavior anyway. When a person’s behavior is influenced by a false belief the came from trauma their behavior may not match that reality of the moment, which can lead to unfavorable results in relationships and life experiences.

Trauma (Big T Trauma)

Trauma in the traditional sense, the kind that leads to PTSD as defined by the DSM-V, involves exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Many of my clients have experienced this sort of Trauma and suffer from PTSD or elements of PTSD as a result. Examples of negative beliefs that often result from these experiences are “I am not safe,” “I will die young,” or “I can’t protect myself.” It is generally understood that these kinds of experiences “count” as trauma, and as such I will not elaborate much further here.

Developmental Trauma

In recent years pioneering psychologists, such as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, have come to recognize a more subtle but equally impactful form of trauma known as Developmental Trauma. Developmental Trauma is defined as trauma resulting from abandonment, abuse, and neglect during the first three years of a child’s life that disrupts cognitive, neurological and psychological development, and the ability for a child to securely attach to adult caregivers. Because I see adult clients, I often see clients who have been suffering the effects of developmental trauma for their entire conscious lives. Often these clients carry false self-beliefs such as “I am worthless” and “I am unloveable.” These clients often have histories strewn with painful relationships that seem to confirm these devastating beliefs. The work on this kind of trauma is complex because it is so embedded in a person's self-concept and subsequent life experiences. However, I have found that a combination of a supportive and collaborative therapy relationship, the development of insight into the nature of the trauma and its impacts on personality, somatic awareness training, and EMDR can be extremely effective in healing from this sort of painful life experience. When clients heal from developmental trauma they experience a healthier sense of self, happier and more-stable relationships, and an easier time making healthy growth oriented life choices. 

Defining Traumatic Moments

All people, no matter how well-adjusted, have had painful experiences. If these painful experiences happened at a crucial moment of development they can become embedded in the way a person views themselves and have resulting broad impacts on a persons life. 

For example, let's say someone suffered a painful social rejection by a friend-group at age 11. Perhaps this person, on a feeling level, internalized the false belief “I don’t fit in groups.” If social development went generally smoothly otherwise, this person probably developed normal social skills and an ability to function well in the eyes of others. However, deep inside the belief “I don’t fit in groups” is still lurking and may be triggered in specific contexts. This may cause an otherwise socially skilled person to behave awkwardly or be introverted in the triggering situation leading to an unfavorable outcome, which can reinforce the negative self-belief.

I find that it can be difficult to begin work on these emotionally traumatic moments in otherwise well-adjusted clients because the negative beliefs are more hidden and the resulting issues may be more subtle. However, by developing insight into the impact of emotionally traumatic moments in an otherwise non-traumatic history, most clients are surprised to see how much their lives and relationships can grow through the resolution of the effects of the emotionally traumatic moments. 

EMDR And Healing In The Trauma Spectrum

I integrated Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) into my approach to therapy 2 years ago. I have found that its addition to the relationally-based, insight-oriented therapy I have always practiced has allowed me to help people with all manner of trauma to heal in a profound and stable manner. For more information on EMDR and the research into its efficacy, please visit www.emdria.org.