The electromagnetic field surrounding our body is so sensitive that it functions like a highly sensitive seismograph. It tells us when our world is dangerous, unstable, safe, or pleasurable. In short, the body is able to tap into invisible resources often considered mysterious or metaphysical that provide us with an inexhaustible source for creativity and self-healing.
While there are amazing stories about people experiencing miraculous and spontaneous healings, many people experience pain, suffering and less than satisfactory physical and mental health. The first question is “why?” and the second is, “what can we do about it?” These questions are the focus of Reclaiming the Body’s Wisdom: An Integrative Approach to Healing Developmental Trauma.
Our 30+ years of heuristic research on developmental trauma with clients and students, and our own personal experiences clearly indicates that the prenatal period and the first three years of life form the foundation for a person’s mental, physical and spiritual health and wellbeing. During this period, the brain, nervous system, neurochemical structures, and the social and relational Self develop according to a child’s experiences.
Children who are raised in environments with a high ratio of mature caregivers are protected, nurtured, educated and valued. They become bonded, accepting, understanding, compassionate, empathic, and mentally and physically healthy adults. Their brains, nervous systems, nervous systems, and neurochemical structures reflect their stable and predictable childrearing.
Children who do not experience safe environments and a secure base during this early period of life experience what we call Developmental Trauma. They have very different brains, nervous systems, neurochemical structures, and social and relational Selves. Children who experience Developmental Trauma become adults with chronic interpersonal problems, compromised mental health, and chronic health problems such as autoimmune disorders. The results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Studies (ACES) make this very clear. The connection is now well established between adverse childhood experiences of abuse and neglect and the long-term consequences on adult physical and mental health.
Developmental psychologists recognize compromised attachment during the prenatal and bonding periods as the critical factor in determining a person’s later overall health. Karlen Lyons-Ruth, a developmental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, says that the attachment system is “a psychological version of the immune system. It combats and reduces stress much like the immune system is the biological structure for fighting physical disease.”
She and her colleagues identified a disturbed type of emotional communication between parent and child as the primary cause of “disorganized attachment.”
A child’s attachment system serves as the social and emotional structure for combating and reducing stress, just as the immune system serves as the biological structure for combating physical disease. During the early years of development, children are not differentiated into “self” and “other,” and their experiences are stored as generalized memories throughout the MindBody. So, the attachment system and the immune system operate as an integrated structure during this early period of development. What happens “relationally” also happens in the nervous system and the body’s neurochemical structures.
Infants’ neurotransmitter systems and stress response systems are mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Both are open systems at birth and depend on predictable and stable caregiving to create internalized behavior patterns to help them cope across the life spam. The attachment system is foundational at a physiological level for establishing relatively irreversible patterns of neurotransmitter production and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis’ responsivity to stress or threat.
This early emotional neglect and abuse impacts the neurological development of children, causing them to develop and maintain fewer opioid receptors in key brain regions (Allan Shore, 2002.) This constricts infants’ emotional-response-range when they are confronted with threatening or challenging situations. They more quickly dissociate, automatically exaggerating their perceptions of threat, fear and anger, which diminishes their ability to respond rationally and effectively. This lays the foundation for mental health issues such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, autism, self-harm, Borderline Personality Disorder, dissociation, depersonalization, kleptomania, PTSD, OCD, PMS, smoking, and other addictions.
Disorganized Attachment’s characteristic chaotic parent-child interactions cause ongoing episodes of emotional disengagement and dissociation. Over time, children experience this intermittent relational reinforcement as deeply traumatic to the undifferentiated MindBody, particularly the endorphin-producing systems in the pituitary and the hypothalamus. This loss of relational contact creates a deficiency of endorphins that also affects infants’ developing nervous systems, effectively causing it to “fray.” The entire neurobiological system creates a fragile ecosystem that regulates pain, anxiety, and depression.
When this natural attachment-immune ecosystem is disrupted, infants learn to replace the natural endorphins with substitutes. These substitutes, which are at the core of all addictions, then become a physical substitute for both the natural endorphins and the need for emotional interactions in intimate relationship. Compromised attachment creates a life trajectory towards social and relational problems, including autism; a host of autoimmune disorders; and the opioid epidemic now sweeping the USA. Now to the next question: what to do about it?
We believe that you can’t fix something unless you know how it got broken. The research is very clear that Developmental Trauma damages the MindBody of infants to such a degree that it changes not only the course of their development, but also their lifespan.
However, there is hope! The key to helping those who suffer from the long-term effects of Developmental Trauma is “plasticity”—the MindBody’s amazing ability to change as the result of having new experiences and the proper kind of relational, somatic and biochemical support. This plasticity is very connected to the innate human drive for wholeness and full expression, the intelligence known as “body wisdom.”
So, the task is to help people reclaim their body’s wisdom, heal the long-term effects of Developmental Trauma, and reconnect them to their inexhaustible capacity for creativity and self-healing. How? By using an integrative approach to healing the long-term effects of Developmental Trauma and the MindBody conditions that it has created. The integrative approach we recommend involves the use of:
1. Heart-centered developmental psychotherapy, which recognizes the client-therapist relationship as a primary resource for healing. It begins with empathic attunement and building a relationship with clients based on genuineness, compassion, and unconditional love. It helps clients identify unhealed developmental trauma, and uses developmental interventions for healing it. It asks, “What happened or didn’t happen to you growing up that may be causing problems in your life?”
A heart-centered approach therapeutic approach is critical, as our research indicates that children who experience Developmental Trauma close their hearts energetically by the end of the second year of life. This protective response, however, not only energetically disconnects children from their caregivers and essential nurturing, but from the relational web of life.
We identified five therapeutic doorways for helping clients identify unhealed developmental traumas very quickly, and produces significant healing in six or fewer sessions. They are:
a. Identifying intractable, recycling conflicts in clients’ intimate relationships. We explore the client’s prenatal, birth, infancy, and early childhood history in search of their sources. Conflict Resolution: The Partnership Way (Weinhold and Weinhold, 2009) summarizes our developmental approach for resolving conflicts.
b. Identifying clients’ attachment strategy and any distorted parent-child relational dynamics that might be anchored in it. According to Mary Main’s research, about 90 percent of client come to counseling with a disorganized attachment history (Siegel, 2015).
c. Working with clients’ chronic or acute health issues. Developmental trauma leaves a residue of unprocessed emotions in the brain and nervous system, the HPA axis and the endocrine system, and the physical structure of the body itself. These health issues often display themselves symbolically and metaphorically. Stomach issues, for example, can reflect a situation that a person “can’t stomach,” and back issues can relate to a lack of support.
d. Using self-awareness activities and inventories to identify clients’ patterns of relational trauma involving attachment and separation trauma.
e. Educating clients about the Drama Triangle. Clearing this dysfunctional relational dynamic, anchored in unhealed attachment and separation trauma, is often life-changing.
The second kind of social and relational support is creating heart-centered, conscious, committed relationships, in which partners agree to help each other heal their developmental trauma. They provide the safety and intimacy that are necessary for the deepest healing, particularly issues related to attachment and separation trauma.
These healing relationships can be created in psychotherapy or through personal agreements between committed partners, siblings, long-time friends, and in groups, such as intentional communities. The most important part of the healing process is that people commit to resolving their conflicts and not fleeing when intense emotions emerge. We discovered that highly motivated couple clients are able to create this kind of relationship in 3 to 6 sessions.
2. Somatic support for the brain, stored body memory, and the frayed Central Nervous System. The second component of our integrative approach for healing developmental trauma is skilled bodywork therapies and trauma-specific tools that address the somatic aspects of developmental trauma. They help repattern the Central Nervous System (CNS) damaged by experiences of developmental trauma, particularly during the first year of life. Early trauma is stored as cellular memory throughout the physical body and the brain. These experiences often overwhelm the developing CNS, causing it to freeze and become blocked in parts of the body. This affects the natural flow of cerebral spinal fluid and physical movement, causing post-traumatic symptoms such as re-experiencing, flashbacks, avoidance, and hyperarousal. We found two categories of body-oriented therapies helpful in healing developmental trauma.
a. The first category is trauma-specific therapies that work directly with the CNS. We developed the Trauma Elimination Technique or (TET) that is a synthesis of a number of other trauma-specific therapies (Weinhold & Weinhold, 2011, p. 281). Other approaches include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (Shapiro, 2001), and other kinds of therapies based on acupressure techniques. They include Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) (Craig, 2008) and Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT) (Fleming, 1999).
b. The second category involves somatic therapies that work directly with the CNS. Experienced somatic therapists are able to listen to the body’s wisdom and to help release areas of stress and congestion in the CNS. They are very gentle and work at subtle levels that honor the fragile “baby nervous system” where the earliest memories of developmental trauma are stored. They typically use a very light touch to move cranial, pelvic and spinal bones in order to regulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. They include craniosacral work, Somatic Experiencing (Levine, 1997), Network chiropractic, Trauma-informed yoga, and other integrative somatic approaches such as Five Elements acupuncture.
3. Neurochemical support for the HPA Axis and stress response system. The third component of our integrative approach for healing developmental trauma is targeted biochemical support for the brain, Central Nervous System, and immune system. The first challenge in the healing process is finding a way to disrupt people’s physical dependency on artificial neurochemicals, then replacing them with the body’s own natural endorphins and hormones, and ultimately to using the body’s wisdom to distribute them throughout the MindBody. Recent exciting research in this area indicates that low doses of Naltrexone are highly effective in this three-step process.
Naltrexone taken in low doses of 4.5 mg or less is effective in treating autoimmune disorders such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, MS, and Lupus. Researchers believe LDN’s anti-inflammatory effect works directly on damaged glial cells in the brain and spinal cord, the CNS’s first and most active form of immune defense (Johnson, 2013). LDN also has no toxicity, minimal side effects in either short- or long-term usage, and is very inexpensive (Bihari, 2013). German research findings indicate that LDN helps people with dissociation and traumatic brain injuries, conditions generally considered chronic and untreatable (Pape, 2017).
The research also indicates that LDN has a positive impact on mental health. Within several weeks of taking it, some users report lifelong debilitating episodes of Major Depressive Disorder completely lifting. They felt calm, relaxed, and completely free of dread and fear. Those taking it long-term report that LDN increased their ability to cope with previously stressful relationships. Over time, their moods stabilized, and they were less susceptible to getting triggered under stress. Some said that none of their efforts to heal through self-care practices such as meditation, yoga, exercise, and regular psychotherapy produced the same dramatic effects that they had with LDN (White, 2017).
LDN’s long-term impact on mental health shows that compared to other psychotropic medications, LDN better supports the brain’s neuroplasticity. It also does not blunt emotional experience like SSRIs, or promote hypnotic/dissociated states as do benzodiazepines. And theoretically, when LDN is discontinued, these changes have a better chance of persisting, since associative mental-emotional integrative processes are not compromised.