By Paul Dunion | November 8, 2018

Trauma can be defined as an unregulated nervous system due to the violation of a physical, sexual or emotional boundary. An unregulated nervous system tends to constrict thinking, feeling and acting. Developmental trauma is the result of repeated violations throughout childhood. It leaves violated individuals confused about how to support their own safety. These individuals typically employ childhood strategies to attempt to secure safety in adulthood. These techniques include hypervigilance, physical and/or emotional isolation.
Hypervigilance is an overactive monitoring of the immediate environment. It operates under the illusion that some potential violation can be detected and avoided. Not only is it exhausting, but also it is inefficient as a reliable warning system. It also distances one’s focus from bodily messages often informed by instinct, which is likely carried in our DNA and inherited as far back as from the Saber Tooth Tiger.
Emotional isolation works, in that we simply do not allow others to know what is wanted and what is felt emotionally. It is a form of boundary. This strategy is based upon the assumption that if others don’t know what clients want or feel, they can’t be hurt or rejected. Of course, in order to prevent some wish or emotion from spilling out, they numb them, keeping them anonymous even to themselves. The result is that they are severely relationally impaired. They cannot genuinely participate in relationships. They can neither collaborate with others nor create some semblance of real emotional intimacy. Friendship remains a remote possibility.
The purpose of physical isolation is to prevent others from accessing them in any way. It does operate as a much-needed boundary, but it is so non-permeable, that being relational is no longer a possibility. Hidden away behind an impenetrable wall, the individual mistakenly decides they are safe, immune from danger and loss. However, love, friendship, intimacy and interpersonal growth are serious losses.
It is common for therapists treating Developmental Trauma to help clients recover their natural relationship to instinct where safety can be maximized. The therapist will encourage the client to focus on bodily messages when deciding to connect with someone or join others. The problem is that when the client has employed physical isolation for years, the somatic message likely heard will be, “don’t go” and “don’t join”. The client’s body will simply report what is most familiar. The client will certainly be employing a boundary, ironically, one that seriously prevents learning about the nuances of good boundaries.
Before suggesting that the client needs to check in with his or her body regarding getting involved with others, I recommend asking the following questions: Do you believe in the event that you are considering attending? Do you believe people will gain something positive by attending? Do you believe you might gain something positive? Would you recommend the event to family and friends? If clients do not feel drawn because the event holds no real meaning for them or is contrary to their values, then, not attending is a really good boundary. If clients respond in the affirmative to the above questions, then seriously consider recommending that the client attend the event in question. A popular client response to such a suggestion is: “I’ll probably get triggered when I’m there!” Such a response translates to shallow breathing, sweating palms, anxiety, muscle tightness, etc. My response to my clients is, “Life is about getting triggered and learning to ground and calm yourself down”.
I then suggest practicing the skills we have been working on while attending the event. Such as saying “No” and “Yes” appropriately to different aspects of the event that appeal or do not appeal to you. Use your eyes to orient. It is important to learn how to track internal sensations and to spread emotions throughout the body, not allowing an emotion to anchor in any one place, and employ breathing techniques that support calming. Sit or stand where you are most comfortable or take a short walk outdoors to support grounding. Following the event, take a personal inventory of how effective you were at self-care. Be honest, congratulating yourself for the successes and clarifying the areas needing practice.
Survivors of Developmental Trauma automatically employ boundaries (physical and emotional isolation) in order to cope with internal tremors such as anxiety, shallow breathing, nausea, muscle tension, joint pain and headaches. However, isolation does not help clients to learn to live the life they were meant to live.
Boundaries are words and actions aimed at separating us from what may be harmful, distasteful or unwanted. They are meant to support our choices to be safe and prevent what we love and appreciate from being interrupted. Effective boundaries help to bring more meaning and depth to a life well lived.
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  1. peter hornat on November 13, 2018 at 11:48 am

    Thank you for revealing to me the wounding that keeps me physically and emotionally isolated.

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