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the Second Path to Being Traumatized

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

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Path 2 - a Chronic Disruption of Connectedness

A “chronic disruption of connectedness” is when someone’s impulse to connect and form a healthy attachment is repeatedly severed. The individual is not allowed to access their safety pathways and maintain access to them. Commonly, someone - like a caregiver or a significant other - abuses or neglects the individual, which cuts off their safety access. This path of trauma is going to be closely connected to flight/fight, shutdown and even freeze.


Let’s say that a child survives an attack by a pack of wild dogs. This could easily leave them in a stuck freeze state. But this individual could go on to live a relatively functional life as they age. Maybe their traumatic state is triggered by certain aspects of that event, like when they see a dog or hear a bark. They could develop otherwise normally, outside the context of these triggers. They can find love, have self-worth and live productive, fulfilling lives. But when it comes to the triggers for that event, they could quickly go right back to the moment of the attack they survived, with flashbacks and intense autonomic shifts. This would be an example of the first path of trauma from the preceding chapter.


This is different from the child who goes through repeated events of abuse or neglect, especially from caregivers that are supposed to provide safety. This child is not given the chance to develop their capacity to feel safety. And if they do, it’s interrupted again and again.


This child who goes through repeated abuse will no doubt go into a freeze state through these episodes. But they will also be going into a deeper and deeper shutdown state. As they quickly learn that they cannot utilize their flight/fight energy to any level of productivity, their only option will be to enter a shutdown. This child will become disconnected from themselves, from others, numb and hopeless.


Their very identities may become enmeshed with their abusers, giving up on any semblance of what may bring them genuine feelings of wholeness, happiness or fulfillment. This isn't a conscious giving up, but a biological one. The conscious thoughts will follow, but first, the shutdown biology becomes active and the dominant state in that person's life.


Growing up, living a functional life will be much more of a challenge for this individual. They won’t be able to identify safety in others. They might identify manipulative individuals as being “normal” and gravitate toward those types of relationships. They will lack the motivation and discipline to get ahead in life. They won’t find purpose or fulfilment from much of anything. Life is very empty and pointless. This might seem extreme, but it’s not. This is a realistic scenario for a child who is not allowed to build their capacity to feel safety, build healthy attachments, receive co-regulation and build self-regulation. Safety is a complete foreigner to their bodies. So much that they don’t recognize it in others, nor within themselves when it is there.


Children have a great capacity for “forgiveness”. Or what looks like forgiveness. Not because they are highly self-actualized, enlightened and moral creatures. It’s more out of necessity. They have a biological drive to connect to their parents. If they don’t have parents who are taking care of them, they don’t survive. It’s just that simple. So they will put up with a lot and still make attempts to connect. Or at least hope for connection. For safety. Not because they are actually forgiving or actually forgetting, but it’s simply a biological imperative to continue to put trust and hope into the people that are their caregivers.


This implicit need and trust in adults is easily misused, abused and manipulated. Parents and caregivers need to be able to be self-regulated enough to nurture this drive within children. If not and especially if they are downright hurtful, then the child’s innate impulse to connect will not be developed in the proper direction. They won’t develop the ventral vagal pathways, which are necessary to identify and build healthy relationships in the future. They won’t meet expected development milestones in a healthy way. They will lack the foundation necessary for safety, resulting in a stuck defensive state.



C-PTSD & Path 2

C-PTSD stands for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, currently not an officially recognized diagnosis in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the "Bible" for people working in mental health. It is closely associated with PTSD, but has a few distinct features and is more connected to the second path of trauma, compared to PTSD and the first path.


Judith Herman originally proposed C-PTSD and said a core feature is prolonged, repeated trauma. She said"...prolonged, repeated trauma can occur only when the victim is in a state of captivity, unable to flee, and under control of the perpetrators” (p. 337). This can apply to many different scenarios *:

  • concentration camps

  • prisoner of war camps

  • prostitution brothels

  • long-term domestic violence

  • long-term child physical abuse

  • long-term child sexual abuse

  • organized child exploitation rings

All of these involve the victim being under the control of another. They cannot run and cannot fight the captor. The only other option is to shut down if the flight/fight impulse is unable to be used. The long-term control is more likely to result in shutdown, I would argue. But there is another level to C-PTSD, because the survivor is potentially also undergoing repeated violent acts, such as sexual assault or physical abuse. One of these acts is enough to leave someone in a stuck freeze state. Repeated acts solidify the freeze state along with the total control of the captor.


For children in particular, they are supposed to be developing into their own unique individual selves. But they need a secure attachment in order to do so. Parents that have a home where the childen are more like captives than members of a family will not produce healthy attachments. Without healthy attachment, the child will not develop from a solid foundation of love.


Instead, they may become what their captors want them to be, relinquishing their sense of self in a deep shutdown. From this unhealthy attachment platform and lack of self-regulation, the child will grow up more likely to have emotional regulation problems and interpersonal problems.


There is a chronic feeling of unsafety. The individual from the first path can have a well-rounded life outside the context of any reminders of the traumatic events. The individual from the second path, however, is constantly in a defensive state, never having their safety pathways developed. "The nervous system gets shaped in relationship with other nervous systems... With trauma survivors, it's been shaped in a certain trajectory, probably more away from connection and towards protection" (Dana).


This person did not have a readily accessible attachment from which to build other healthy relationships from. This person will repeatedly find the wrong people to connect to. People that don't support their well-being and are probably in their own stuck defensive state.


This person has a deeply negative concept of themself. They may have never really gotten to know who they are and maybe had to become what someone else wanted in order to survive. They had to ignore their own natural, bodily impulses to run or flee.



As children, we believe what adults tell us about who we are and what our potential is. This person may not have received positive messages and expectations from their caretakers. Instead, they may have received rage, panic, unhealthy boundaries, violence, control, jealousy and more. Their home did not have the emotional space for them.


So naturally, they did not develop an internal reference point for safety, something to anchor them in the present moment. Safety became about the outside world. Appeasing the people that needed it. Or aggressing upon those that could be aggressed upon in an attempt to release frozen rage.


As with the first path, the priority in treatment is safety. And with this client, we really work from the ground up. We slowly build a relationship and notice small moments of connection and safety as they appear. We be with them nonjudgmentally in their emotional dysregulation, maintaining our own access to safety and offering it to them passively. We help them to create healthy boundaries, recognizing their true feelings and thoughts as distinct from others'.


It's a long process. And a slow one. With a lot of frustration. But change is possible.


Journal:

  1. Can you identify events or context in your life that were more likely to result in path 1? How about path 2?

  2. Is it possible that your stuck state is simply a result of your life's context? And not a reflection of who you are or your worth?

 

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Thanks for reading!

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