ACOoAs and Intimacy: How Childhood Trauma Gets Triggered by Adult Relationships
By Tian Dayton PhD – Excerpted from The ACoA Trauma Syndrome
Soldiers who have PTSD may duck at the sound of a car back-firing, unconsciously fearing that it is the sound of gunfire. Even though they are no longer anywhere near a battlefield, they carry the scars that can trigger that old fear; they feel, for a moment, as if they are still there.
For ACoAs, the battlefield can be intimate relationships, and the loud sounds or triggers can be as innocuous as a fight in the next room, a sudden change of mood, or a tense or aggressive vocal tone. Because they were traumatized in their home and by the people who they loved and depended on for care, nurturance, and even basic survival, ACoAs’ unconscious “scenes” tend to reemerge when they create families of their own. Intimate relationships, such as partnering and parenting are common ACoA triggers that reactivate childhood fears.
As adults, when we encounter situations that feel similar to ones we experienced as kids, our fear gets triggered but we don’t really understand why because we never figured it out in the first place. We go back into a state of hyperarousal and hypervigilance, and all of the tangled mess of confused and conflicting feelings we experienced as kids seem to swarm around our heads, but we don’t know what got us there or how to get out of it. Often, we erroneously link our feelings of fear to whatever is around us at the moment. Actually, it isn’t so much those situations in and of themselves that are scaring us; we’re afraid that those situations will trigger unconscious, underexposed, and unprocessed feelings that we won’t be able to handle or make sense of. Beneath the level of our conscious awareness, we become a scared child all over again. Triggered by something that reminds us of a time in our lives when we might have felt helpless, scared, and vulnerable, we become lost in a wordless web of unprocessed or disequilibrating emotions, not knowing how to sort them out or come back from them. When in this state, many adults do what they did as kids: they freeze like a deer in the headlights; they try to become “invisible” until their feeling of danger passes. It is part of the natural fear response: if no one sees me, no one will hurt me. They become, in other words, immobilized.
How many times have I heard clients describe themselves as having felt invisible in their own homes? Was it that no one saw them, or did they find home a scary place? Were they invisible, or were they frozen in fear and experiencing themselves as “disappeared”?
Still another part of the trauma response is aggression or withdrawal. Triggered ACoAs may either intimidate people or avoid them in an attempt to avoid feeling vulnerable. Or they fight back, rage, blame, or withdraw for safety.
What they seldom do is find middle ground. They have trouble sitting still, listening, feeling, and translating those feelings into meaningful words that might lead toward resolution. They get stuck in the trauma extremes of either being flooded with feeling or shut down and withdrawn.
When Pain Goes Underground
Think of it this way: you’re a seven-year-old kid in a home where Dad gets drunk and rages. Mom stands, exhausted, and tries to protect you some of the time, gives up and hides in her room some of the time, and joins Dad in raging some of the time. You, the kid, are scared and quite trapped: you can’t really run away; this is home after all. If you talk back – or worse, try to fight – you might get hit or sent to your room, or worst of all, made to stay and live through one of those humiliating, soul-pounding lectures about how bad you are. Or you might be ignored and feel yourself literally disappearing. So you feel helpless and you sort of collapse and go numb. Or you freeze, you “go away” somewhere into your imagination while your body still stands there.
In this scene, there is a power imbalance for sure, and you’re at the short end of it. You have little access to outside sources of support – you are, after all, only seven. And the person or people you would generally go to for comfort and solace are the ones who are hurting you. All of these factors make this a traumatizing moment for a child.
In addition to all of this, you are making sense of it all through the eyes of a seven-year-old. You may wonder, as children do, what went wrong and how to fix it. You may feel inept at helping or blame yourself. So you can feel not only hurt but also confused, responsible, at fault, and unable to do anything about it. In other words, you feel helpless. And you may not have people you can go to for a quick “reality check.” So you swallow this scene whole. The picture gets frozen right there, and so do the feelings surrounding it…and that picture doesn’t necessarily change much over time. It lives inside the psyche where it becomes double- and triple-exposed with other similar pictures, and many of these scenes get blended together in a sort of inner portrait of the self and the self in relationship.
But what we don’t know can still hurt us…
Later, these “inner pictures” get played out in our adult relationships. They template further experience. (So do the good pictures, by the way; they just don’t give us as many problems so we don’t worry about them.) This is the dilemma of the ACoA, the dilemma that we will explore in more depth throughout this book.
Leaching and Leaking of Buried Pain
When we grow up and have families and relationships of our own, those inner pictures of the self and the self in relationship reemerge. Neatly filed feelings, actions, and imagery that we imagined were well hidden fly out of their envelopes and folders straight into everyone’s faces. And those pictures have incredible detail. It is amazing just how carefully the unconscious records, remembers, and re-creates what has gone before. We encounter an unexpectedly familiar smell, texture, or a few bars of music, and we sail back into a forgotten moment of time in the blink of an eye. Past becomes prologue. At that moment when we are triggered, we become trapped by our own unresolved history and set up to repeat it. Though we may occupy an adult body, we return to this child-place inside of ourselves. In addition to the psychological and emotional bind we may find ourselves in when we’re triggered, our bodies are also reliving the trauma. Our breath gets short, our hearts may pound, our stomachs flip-flop, our throat goes dry, and our muscles tense up. We feel helpless and unable to make decisions all over again. In this way, the ACoA trauma syndrome involves both the body and mind, so healing from it is a mind-body process.
Recovering from PTSD is just as important as recovering from addiction and needs to be taken just as seriously. ACoAs need to sober up emotionally and psychologically so they do not live out the sort of “dry drunk” patterns that mirror addiction-related thinking, feeling, and behavior, even when alcohol and drugs are not in the picture. Trauma and PTSD invariably become intergenerational. Even if the ACoA or traumatized adult does not become an addict (though many do), he or she passes on the kind of emotional and psychological thinking, feeling, and behavior that can engender trauma, addiction, and dysfunction in subsequent generations.
Of course these same intimate relationships can be the ACoA’s path to healing when they learn to back up when triggered and understand that within those triggered memories is the key to their unlocking and understanding what hurt them most. Developing the ability to use those feelings, translate their feelings into words, and talk about what emotions are getting triggered before projecting old pain into new relationships can make new relationships a path toward healing rather than an arena of reenactment.
For the rest of Dr. Dayton’s book, “The ACoA Trauma Syndrome”, click here.
Deepak/Kemper: please make the “here” a live link to this URL: http://www.amazon.com/ACOA-Trauma-Syndrome-Childhood-Relationships/dp/0757316441/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383069206&sr=1-1&keywords=the+acoa+trauma+syndrome+how+childhood+pain+impacts+adult+relationships