People who had a rough childhood often go through life feeling — knowing — that they are a little different than most people. It’s common sense that early exposure to violence, addiction, abuse or neglect can have a lifelong effect on mental health and behavior.
Until recently, researchers understood these effects to be mostly a) psychological or b) learned from dysfunctional parents. And while this is partly true, we now know the primary injury is neurological.
Early trauma dysregulates the brain and nervous system, potentially triggering a wide range of problems from obesity to ADHD to heart disease to sex addiction. But for people with Childhood PTSD, just being dysregulated is a problem that makes ordinary things in life ridiculously hard — things like going on a date, spending time alone, expressing an opinion, or just buying a pair of pants can set it off.
If you could see an MRI image of the brain in this dysregulated state, you’d see the front left cortex go dim and inactive, hampering the ability to reason and pay attention. You’d see the right front cortex (home of emotions) flaring wildly, triggering a flood of emotion. Brain waves are irregular; breathing and heart rate become ragged and out of sync. There may be numbness in the hands, mouth or face. It can be hard to find words or omplete tasks or pay attention. Personally, I get clumsy and trip and drop things. Handwriting changes. Many of us say things we don’t mean, and do things we don’t want to do. Or we may grow silent and withdrawn. Or we may feel desperate and act impulsively, or fly into a rage and lash out. After an outburst, we may feel very little emotion, and behave coldly to the people we’ve just hurt.
Oy. Not good, huh?
But here’s the thing: these reactions are not always happening because people are bad or selfish or weak (ok, maybe there’s a little of that, as with all people). These reactions are happening (or made worse) because the brain is dysregulated. This was not well understood until recently, but now we know.
Here’s one way that I’ve described the feeling of dysregulation:
It’s like wearing a pair of headphones with AC/DC music blasting in your ears, while wearing somebody else’s Coke-bottle glasses that make everything blurry. You have to pretend that you feel fine and that you are “in” the conversation. You feel disconnected, but you try to say things connected people would say. You have to think about how to hold your face so it looks appropriate to whatever the other person is saying. Only you can’t really hear what they’re saying, because the noise in your head is so loud.
Dysregulation is worst when we’re confronted with stress and crises. This explains why so many people with Childhood PTSD appear to keep making the same bad choices over and over, without seeing that they’re doing it again. You can make good choices and good changes, but not until you learn to re-regulate.
So the solution comes in two phases: First learn to re-regulate and stay regulated, then (with your nice, fresh, regulated mind) work on the behaviors and circumstances that are holding you back.
This is how I was able to recover from my own Childhood PTSD and start making big, constructive changes like getting happily married, becoming a better mother, starting a business and doing things that make my life healthy, fun and purposeful. The more time I spend regulated, the more easily I can make positive changes, and the better my life becomes.
You already know how to re-regulate; you do it every time you get dysregulated (even if you don’t yet have control over when and how). The trick is to quickly notice when you’re dysregulated, and then quickly re-regulate so you can stop the overreaction and get on with your life.
In my online course Healing Childhood PTSD, I teach every student a daily writing exercise as the very first part of recovery. It’s takes about ten minutes, twice a day (on hard days you can spend much more time if you like). The exercise involves noticing the fearful and resentful thoughts in your mind, writing them on paper, and then releasing them (or, for people who pray, asking for them to be removed). It’s deceptively simple but remarkably powerful. I’ve used it for almost 25 years, followed by simple meditation. Some people take to it like a fish to water. Others use it just occasionally. I’ve seen it work for literally hundreds of people. You can also watch videos I’ve produced that teach the technique here.