By Trauma Therapist, Philippa Dryland MBACP (accred.)

Almost everything we read and hear at present is geared to helping us understand and protect ourselves from the physical dangers of Covid-19.

In recent weeks via the media more and more questions have been asked about the longer-term psychological impact of this world wide pandemic on our mental wellbeing. As a consequence, society is more awake to the reality that trauma has the potential to leave a lasting impact on our minds and our bodies, in particular those who are currently on the frontline within the NHS working tirelessly in the face of this dangerous unknown threat to save lives.

Concerns about the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for those who have survived near death experiences and for key workers battling to save lives are now firmly within our awareness.

What society is not so aware of is the long-term impact of cumulative and repetitive early life trauma and abuse on the developing nervous system and brain. Many small children are living with PTSD right now and where it remains unknown and misunderstood it is likely to develop into Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) in adulthood.

There is a strong link between feeling unsafe and the development of trauma, PTSD and CPTSD. Trauma is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope and to integrate our emotional responses associated with an event. We become traumatised and can develop traumatic stress when we are unable to take the action we wanted to take to keep ourselves/others safe. It is being unable to take action in the face of trauma that causes traumatic stress.

Feeling physically safe is key to functioning effectively in everyday life, and it is something so many of us have taken for granted until now. Covid 19 has altered our perception of feeling safe because this virus is potentially life threatening. The world and others are not as safe as they were before. Leaving our homes, going food shopping, coming within 2 metres of other people are now potential risks to our physical safety causing greater hypervigilance and increased anxiety. The source of the danger is unknown and as such we are less trusting of others and the world than we were before. This hypervigilance is something we experience at body level. We are learning to step back from others rather than moving towards them, our eyes become more alert than normal and scan for danger, our perception narrows and we become more wired to protect ourselves.

Although the world and others may seem dangerous at present, fundamentally we are social beings and made for connection. Those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up in homes with ‘good enough’ attachment experience will have developed an internal sense of safety and security through love and reassurance, knowing that we would be soothed when distressed. We learned from experience that others are trustworthy and it is the presence ofsafety and love that helps produces oxytocin and serotonin in the brain and nervous system, sculpting it to become more resilient and more robust in the face of trauma.

Feeling physically safe is something that is unknown to many adult survivors of early life trauma and abuse. Many will have grown up with parents who were frightened or frightening, unpredictable, changeable in mood.

A child needs their parent so when the parent is not safe the brain adapts and the child learns to dissociate so that they can emotionally survive whilst having their physical needs met. It is heightened levels of fear and anxiety in childhood that generate higher levels of adrenalin and cortisol in the developing brain and nervous system. It is the presence of higher levels of these chemicals in the brain that wire the nervous system more for self protection than connection. Survivors of early life trauma will experience greater emotional dysregulation because these chemicals send their nervous systems swinging between fight/ flight and collapse.

So what helps enable self regulation, what helps restore greater emotional stability and grounding for survivors of early life trauma? In the same way a lack of safety in childhood can destroy trust and an ability to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way, a safe trusting and authentic  therapeutic relationship can help recovery. Polyvagal theory is showing us why this is the case.

At a future training day, I hope to share what helps and what hinders when working with survivors of early life complex trauma and dissociation.  I have made many mistakes along the way and I continue to make mistakes, but it is our commitment and ability to repair ruptures, rather than making mistakes that is key to a meaningful therapeutic relationship that enables healing.

Philippa Dryland MBACP (accred.) is a trauma therapist who has been working with complex trauma and dissociation for over a decade. Philippa is running a CPD workshop 'Working with Dissociation and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in Survivors of Complex Early Life Trauma and Abuse' later this year for STARS Dorset.