Overwhelmed by trauma or thwarted by neglect : the issue of age regression in trauma recovery

Children gradually learn to interpret the message their bodies give them  Indeed, it is by learning to coordinate movement (behaviours) and sensations into a coherent whole that a child learns who he or she is.  By remembering actions that have proven to be effective, and discarding those that are not, children lean how to anticipate what the most appropriate response is and how to time its execution for maximum effect.  In this way, they experience agency, satisfaction and pleasure.  When a child is overwhelmed by trauma or thwarted by neglect, this developmental sequence is aborted or, if already developed, breaks down, and negative emotions come to dominate his or her existence.”

Peter Levine,    In An Unspoken Voice

A huge result of suffering trauma is a state of paralysis.  A frozen stuckness which may hide massive emotions within it, emotions that break out in response to triggers or even to what seem like innocuous events to others, who are unaware of the suffering person’s trauma or neglect history.

Traumas can occur at any stage of our development.  We may suffer trauma in the womb or prior to the development of a separate ego from our mother and that kind of trauma gets buried at a bodily level and is almost impossible to understand at a conscious level.  In any case there is a great deal of actual trauma that is wordless and nameless, it just exists as a profound neurological condition of fear or terror and the process of recovery is complicated by what I would call the Gorgon’s Head effect. 

I am not sure if you are aware of the myth of the Gordon’s Head or the image of a  woman’s head framed by a crown of writhing snakes.  It is a powerful mythological or metaphorical image that speaks to the state of extreme terror that can confront us as we face into the deeply repressed pain of trauma, abuse or neglect.  In myth the Gordon’s Head could not be looked at or confronted directly.  In order to fight the Gorgon, Hercules took up a  shield and a spear and was also armed with a helmet. This shows a psychic reality about how difficult it is for many of us to confront trauma directly and also (0n some level) for the kinds of reactions we often get when our trauma rises up or we seek to address it with others who get terrified, hostile or defensive as a result.

In the telling of the myth, once the Gordon’s Head is removed, the winged horse Pegasus flies out.  This tells us there is a lot of creative and powerful energy that can be released and used once we do find the courage to face and release our trauma.

It is critical to understand that frozen trauma energy or imprints will keep us blocked or frozen at earlier stages of development.  When I first got into addiction recovery I heard many people share that they felt they never matured or had remained frozen at the age and level of maturity they were when they first picked up a drink, this shows that when we start self medicating, even though for so many of us this remains a necessary survival strategy we don’t make much progress.  And I do believe that we can stay stuck at earlier critical ages as well.

Recovering alcoholic turned therapist and writer John Lee addresses the issue of age regression in his book Growing Yourself Back Up : Understanding Emotional Regression.  We can regress to any age or trauma often unconsciously.  Such regression is given the name of a trigger or flashback by other trauma writers such as Pete Walker.  Something occurs which has a resonance with an earlier action by someone who traumatised us and immediately we are sucked back into past, often reacting in some powerful way.  It may take some time later when we stop shocked to realise ‘what the hell was that all about?’

Regression is the reaction we have when something happening in the present triggers a memory in our bodies about something that happened in the past.  An easy formula to remember is Mature adults respond, regressed people react.  Regressed men and women tend to overreact or underreact.

John goes on to talk about the concept of ‘the little one in us who remembers everything’, explaining how each of us carries in our body memories of each and everything that has happened to us.

We know we have age regressed when we suddenly start to feel small, weak, anxious, excessively angry.  When we get sweaty palms, a racing heart, out of breath and many other senses and thoughts go into hyper-alert.  We are frozen by the Gorgon’s Head of our past trauma.  In addition when we age regress we ask others to carry the weight of our unconscious past issues.  Often this can trigger a regression in them.  They may also feel angry, unseen, resentful and abandoned.

I will share a post soon on the many red flags which indicate that we have regressed to an earlier age or trauma.  Below are just some :

  • Raging or getting hysterical.
  • Having a feeling that time is unreal or distorted in some way.
  • Physical symptoms such as stomach in knots, racing pulse, dry mouth, fast beating heart.
  • Talking and talking in a defensive fashion without saying anything
  • Shutting down and not talking, checking out, physical numbness, saying everything is okay when it is not, not telling the truth about how you feel, avoiding.
  • Feeling as though you are stuck in a no win situation and have no choice
  • Thinking we know best for others or what they are thinking or feeling  when we do not.
  • Minding other people’s business.  We can care about what others do but we cannot always change it or them.  Often an over concern for others reflects our own attempt to hide from our own wounds, project them or escape from pain that we really need to feel and process.
  • Asking childish questions when we are really adults.  Often out of past insecurities we have not processed.

All of the above ways of coping lead us to states of trance regression.  Trance regression takes us out of present time when triggered, it makes us impute motives to others that may not truly be present, it stops us dealing with and locating the true pain of the past that led to the trance in the first place.  Trance regression means we are not present in an adult state.  It can fracture relationships and may even end up with us isolated and alone again after we continue to act out past pain onto present situations unrelated except through our own unconscious triggers.

John Lee goes on to explain how trance regression can actually be turned into conscious regression.  In conscious regression we take steps to notice our reactions and regressions, to connect them to past wounds, disappointments, hurts or neglect.  It involves going back to the state of emotional freeze that we entered when we first encountered trauma in childhood in order to thaw our the frozen state.  We do this by speaking out and expressing what occurred for us, taking the action that was not allowed or was blocked or prevented at the original trauma imprint time.

There are four ways we react to injury wounding, abuse or trauma according to John Lee.  These four ways are :  fight, flight, primal scream and immobility.

According to Lee

Conscious regression provides the safety a person needs to re-enact one or some combination of these four responses to something that was done to them.  If we feel unsafe… we tend to go into Trance Regression.  We can attempt conscious  regression only when we feel safe.

Conscious regression is best done with a safe person.  We do not need to be shamed or hurt further when we attempt to release trauma.

A safe person according to Lee :

is able to give you attention, empathy, time, and touch so that you can release your tension and distress and thaw out the frozen parts of your psyche and body.  The person may or may not be a professional therapist.  Many professional therapists have not thawed out themselves and thus will be frightened by your own need to unfreeze.  They might even dismiss such a need as being useless and irrelevant to the healing process. Few people really know how to give the kind of attention that we need to feel, and express emotions in a way that is useful and not hurtful to others.

In following posts I will explore the four ways of working to release past trauma through conscious regression which John Lee outlines and which I have personally experienced as helpful in my own trauma recovery.

9 thoughts on “Overwhelmed by trauma or thwarted by neglect : the issue of age regression in trauma recovery

  1. A powerful post. I was blown away by the reference to the story of Gorgon. The inability to see her eye-to-eye. The fact that Pegasus was released when her head was cut-off. Makes me want to revisit these stories to better see the hidden meanings. Now that I’ve lived a long life and have sometimes experienced what I wish I hadn’t, I may have eyes to see those buried truths.

    My greatest lament with all these realizations is that the information and lessons often come to us so late in the game after we and others have already done continued and often irreversible damage to ourselves and others.

    1. Yes, that is the most painful thing, isn’t it, Sue? Wisdom comes through what we suffer and maybe there is a deep essential truth there, which also teaches us lessons of deep forgiveness both for ourselves and for others.

      1. The more I dig into it and find my way to forgiving some of the most difficult “others,” the more I create a pile of stuff to then work on forgiving MYSELF for. Whew! It’s never ending. (not saying that’s a bad thing; ultimately, it’s a process worth processing!)

      2. Sure does… lots of energy! Absolutely agree with your assessment. And I took note how you omitted ‘love’ from this part “I do think our capacity to forgive others does . . .” You didn’t say “to love and forgive others.” We can love others even when we don’t love ourselves. We may not love well when we don’t love ourselves, but we do love.

      1. Thank you Deborah. I am writing a lot in my journals now, waiting to be inspired to share my stories on my blog. I’m getting there. It’s sad that most people need to do this type of work but are so afraid to do it. There’s no manual out there. Our parents never taught us how to do it.

        The title of your blog, Emerging From the Dark Night, is a concept I learned about on a really wonderful website called LonerWolf. Have you ever seen it? I was so happy to have found that website. There’s not nearly enough like it.

        In our society it’s all too rare to find honesty, openness, the courage to be vulnerable in a positive way (a la Brene Brown). It took most of my life to realize this is the only way for me to go. Thanks again for sharing your journey. I look forward to sharing more of mine.

      2. No Miriam I haven’t heard of that site, I am excited to look into it. That title came to me in the depths of such a dark time following the end of my marriage. I heard an inner voice say to me “you will emerge from the dark night victorious”. When I started my blog that is why I used that title. Thanks so much for connecting with me. Deborah. PS It will be great to read about your journey too.

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