The Trauma Brain; Understanding Trauma & Codependency
"How are you supposed to know when you were never taught."
The line that at nearly 32 years old finally helped me to start being kinder to myself.
The line that helped me to finally start letting go of the preconceived ideas I had of being perfect, being seen and experiencing real love.
There is a little girl inside of me who only ever knew chaos. Who only ever knew toxicity. Who believed that getting close to people and being vulnerable would result in losing them. A little girl who learnt how to shut down her entire system to black out traumatic situations and numb herself from feeling pain.
That's all I was ever taught.
From as early as I can remember, I have overthought. From the moment I can remember, I would walk away from conversations thinking "Oh. My. God. What did I say that for!?"
I relied so much on other people for validation, I had difficulty concentrating and was often found daydreaming, usually imagining a world outside of my own.
I didn't know how to ask for help. I didn't know how to ask for what I needed. I learnt it was better to be quiet, because children didn't have opinions. And possibly my biggest misconception was that everyone was like me which left me frustrated and feeling very much misunderstood.
As I got older this became more apparent in my emotional relationships. That little girl was now just masquerading in the form of an adult body. I NEVER understood it. I never understood that being pursued and having physical chemistry with someone did not mean that they loved me. As a "hopeless romantic", I believed the only reason someone pursued you was because they already knew they were in love with you and wanted to embrace all of who you were. I would let my guard down with my partners only to end up being labelled "too needy" or "too sensitive" and would ultimately "scare them away". I would then spend so much time overthinking and analysing myself and my behavior and feeling like there was something fundamentally "wrong with me". Which would result in over explaining in an attempt to prove that there wasn't anything wrong with me.
This is Codependency.
Codependency is the excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner for validation and security for lack of your own self worth. *Italics added
“Codependency can be defined as any relationship in which two people become so invested in each other that they can’t function independently anymore," Dr. Becker says. "Your mood, happiness, and identity are defined by the other person. In a codependent relationship, there is usually one person who is more passive and can’t make decisions for themselves, and a more dominant personality who gets some reward and satisfaction from controlling the other person and making decisions about how they will live.”
“Signs of codependency include excessive care taking, controlling and preoccupation with people and things outside of ourselves,” says Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, a consultant, educator, and author of numerous books, including Understanding Codependency.
Signs of Codependency include:
Having difficulty making decisions in a relationship
Having difficulty identifying your feelings
Having difficulty communicating in a relationship
Valuing the approval of others more than valuing yourself
Lacking trust in yourself and having poor self-esteem
Having fears of abandonment or an obsessive need for approval
Having an unhealthy dependence on relationships, even at your own cost
Having an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
The Trauma Brain
The Trauma Brain is a brain that has been effected by significant (adult or childhood) trauma. The biggest difference between the Trauma Brain and a Healthy Brain is the function of the temporal lobes. A healthy brain is able to regulate emotions and other functions using the temporal lobes while a trauma brain is wired for self-protection and safety, often with little temporal lobe function. When a Trauma Brain is 'triggered' by feelings of fear, uncertainty, frustration or heartache, the brain not only activates the fight, flight or freeze response, but also activates the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in numbing or dissociating. Often shutting down/blocking any kind of opportunity for healthy decision making.
The Trauma Brain is often a Codependent brain because codependency is a way of escaping ones reality and entertaining the imagination. The imagination creates imagery of the outcome we desire; to be loved, to be cared for, to be understood. These become our fundamental expectations of our partner which are unrealistic and result in frustration (a common trigger). The innate desire to prove ourselves to our partner and the fear of abandonment then becomes the focus of the relationship. It all feels so familiar because it is chaotic, often mimicking the environment of a traumatic upbringing or the trauma experienced in adulthood.
A person with a trauma brain will sabotage even the healthiest relationships or stay in a toxic, codependent relationship much longer than a person with a healthy brain.
Last year as my marriage fell apart, I slipped back into old coping patterns which lead me to start researching why I do things the way I do. Having never understood, I started looking into different personality disorders, overthinking, triggers and behavioral patterns linked to trauma. I began speaking with a psychiatrist and one day I said to her, "I have read so much and spent so many hours looking into what triggers my anxiety. Sometimes I feel like my brain is literally shutting down but I can't stop it from happening. I can't regulate my thoughts when I start panicking no matter how much I try and calm myself down."
And that's when she said it. "How are you supposed to know, when you were never taught?"
I paused as her words made their way into my mind. And then I burst into tears. She asked me, what made you upset just then?
As I thought about what she had said, my answer was simply, "Hope".
This one line gave me more hope than I could ever have thought because I finally able to see a glimmer of a silver lining.
How can you know how to communicate? How can you know how to let someone in? How can you stop your brain from shutting down when you don't feel safe? How can you know if you can trust yourself? Or trust anyone else?
When you were never taught...
If you are experiencing any of the following, you may benefit from seeking Professional Support:
Having trouble functioning at home or work
Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
Avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma
Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially re-traumatizing, so this healing work is best undertaken with the help of an experienced trauma specialist. Finding the right therapist may take some time. It’s very important that the therapist you choose has experience treating trauma. But the quality of the relationship with your therapist is equally important. Choose a trauma specialist you feel comfortable with. If you don’t feel safe, respected or understood, find another therapist.
If you're not ready to speak with someone, here are FIVE things have helped me;
1. Setting Boundaries
Growing up with non-existent boundaries or in an environment where boundaries were violated regularly can cause us to say yes to things that make us uncomfortable in order to gain love or approval. We weren't taught how to say "no". So when we do, we feel so much guilt and shame. We then apologise for having our own needs and tend to over explain. Setting Boundaries is an important part of reclaiming ourselves and healing.
Grounding exercises are helpful when you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or distracted by distressing memories, thoughts or feelings. Using sights, sounds and smells, you can learn to stay in the present moment. If you were raised in a chaotic household it is likely that you have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms which might include daydreaming, escaping, numbing or disassociating which would rarely allow you to experience or stay in the present moment. You might find you struggle to listen, are hyper sensitive or only think about the moment after it has passed.
You can find some great grounding exercises here:
Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. As well as burning off adrenaline and releasing endorphins, exercise and movement can actually help repair your nervous system. Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more as often as you can. Yoga, Hiking, Walking or Breathing in nature can be very helpful as it adds a level of mindfulness to your exercise regime.
You don't have to talk about your trauma but if you are feeling overwhelmed, ask for support. Turn to someone close who is non-judgmental and will listen actively to you. You can reconnect with old friends, join a support group or join a group activity that makes you happy. Be it a pottery class, gym, hiking, walking or cycling group, dance class or chess team.
5. Physical Health
Taking care of your physical health has a huge impact on your mental health.
SET GOALS to get plenty of sleep, avoid too much alcohol or other drugs, eat a well balanced diet and try to implement a relaxation techniques to reduce stress. I use the Calm & the Waking Up App by Sam Harris. If any of these are an issue, consult your GP.