By Natalia Balsundaram, Trauma Therapist, Promises, Young Adult Program Lily was so excited about becoming a mother. She lovingly collected baby items and built a nursery for her first child. She couldn’t wait to meet him. In her sixth month of pregnancy, she discovered her husband was gambling — heavily. He told her it was to “make money for the baby.” When she lashed out at him in dismay over his behavior, he packed a bag and left her for two weeks to go off on a gambling spree, putting their family life in disarray. Abandoned and filled with despair, she cried herself to sleep at night, patting her stomach, and promising her baby she’d find a way to take care of him. But she did not feel very hopeful. When her husband returned, broke and broken, their marriage was never the same and their finances were drained. Every day was filled with stress, worry and arguments. When she went into labor, she had a friend take her to the hospital instead of the father of her child. As much as she tried to protect her unborn baby from her stress, there was no way she could totally shield him. The seeds of preverbal trauma had been planted.
Womb With a View
Just as small children can be impacted by stressors in the home, unborn babies can be affected by what goes on in their mother’s mind and body during pregnancy. The first signs of trauma can occur before they even enter the world. The unborn baby’s only environment is the uterus and if the mother is having chronic aggravation, or the mother has mental health issues or uses drugs, it all impacts the baby’s environment. For example, if the mother is stressed or has PTSD, she is constantly on high alert. Or if she is in an abusive relationship, and is constantly having exposure to those stress chemicals, that’s going to impact the child. In Lily’s case, the devastation of her marriage while pregnant took a toll on her. Once she gave birth, she researched how her own traumatic experience may have impacted her son and learned that, ultimately, it may come down to nature vs. nurture. Some people are exposed to trauma while still in the womb and will not develop trauma. Others can go on to develop PTSD, anxiety and other disorders, or addictions. Some of the factors that exacerbate preverbal trauma are these more commonly known traumas.
- Childhood trauma. A disturbing life experience, or a series of experiences, that deeply wound people in their early years between ages 0 to 6. This may include: Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, exposure to domestic abuse, addiction or violence between parents, siblings or within the community, and experiences in natural disasters or in war zones. It also encompasses devastating accidents or injuries, pediatric medical issues and loss.
- Complex trauma. Repetitive exposure, usually within the home, sets children up for chronic problems that can include PTSD. It could be repeated sexual abuse or physical abuse at the hands of a relative, or witnessing a mother or sibling regularly beaten by a family member. It might also occur from seeing a caregiver continually drunk or on drugs or neglect by one or more parents. It happens when an environment is unsafe, there is not enough food or basic needs being met and a child has no one to turn to for help.
- Attachment disorder. Infants cannot fend for themselves and when they do not receive the care they need from primary caregivers, it disrupts normal child development. Secure attachment occurs when comforts are offered and basic human needs are fulfilled. But if parents are unable to bond with babies, are non-attuned, or if there is neglect or abuse, the lack of stability produces disruptions in the child’s neurophysiological systems. The more secure and stable the earlier attachment, the more success we have later in life at regulating emotions. Conversely, the more disruptions experienced can lead to issues later in childhood and in adulthood.
Treating Preverbal Trauma
Mothers have lives, human emotions and pain and cannot shield their children from every exposure to negative experience or from every one of life’s slings and arrows. Fortunately for Lily’s son, she went into therapy and in the process of healing her own wounds learned more about how to bond with her baby to counteract some of his preverbal trauma. This gave him at least one healthy parent who did her best to be attuned to him. Ultimately she may have reduced or preempted the risk factor for preverbal trauma. Not every mother can be expected to know how their stress has impacted their children, so many people grow up with symptoms of preverbal trauma. Some of the following therapies have been found to be effective.
- EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). This exposure therapy helps people “reprocess” negative life experiences and psychological trauma in order to desensitize the experience. The person begins by identifying the worst part of the trauma, naming it, and through a series of steps desensitizing its intensity.
- Brainspotting. This is a psychotherapy that recognizes there is activation in the body when describing trauma and it correlates with a particular part of the brain. A therapist observes the physical reaction and uses the visual field to assess the part of the brain connected to the trauma.
- Somatic Experiencing Therapy. This therapy allows someone to re-experience the trauma in small doses and to recognize where in the body shame, fear and pervasive thoughts may be stuck. This helps them get “unstuck” physically and move on from the trauma emotionally.
The reason these “Brain Body Based” therapies and others help with preverbal trauma is that they work on the nervous system, on both the body and the brain. People use their frontal lobes to think. That’s where the executive functioning part of the brain resides. But in targeting PTSD and preverbal trauma, the attempt is to reach the older part of the brain, the reptilian brain. That is where the fight-or-flight response, the survival mechanism, is out of whack. When the deepest traumas cannot be accessed through talk therapy, these three trauma therapies are a helpful addition to the healing toolbox.