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Treating Relational Trauma Experientially

Relational trauma is the kind of emotional and psychological trauma that occurs within the context of relationships. Our bodies, minds, and hearts are designed by nature to want to be in relationships of all kinds. We resonate in tune, or sometimes out of tune, with those around us. We’re wired for connection, wired to desire closeness and to fear abandonment. Our impulses relate and read each other’s subtle signals so that we can cooperate, live, and work together, inform and create our drive to attach. Without this profound hunger and yearning for closeness, our species could not survive. 


We have evolved this biology of love and fear in order to assure that couples pair-bond, parents attach to their children, and children attach to their parents long enough to accomplish the awesome task of people making. Since our very survival depends on our ability to form and maintain sustaining relationships, emotions associated with these “survival” relationships are intense and we will go to extraordinary lengths to keep these relationships intact. As small children, we feel one with those who raise us. Our families appear to us as inevitable as the sun; they are simply there, part of our world, part of who we are. Our sense of self develops in concert with our self in relation to others. Our relational roots run deep and intertwine and we shape each other as they grow together. We are part of a system and when that system changes, we change. When that system or any part of it ruptures, we feel ruptured, too.


The relational dynamics that we experience with those who raise us literally become part of our neural wiring. They inform the contours of who we become; they inscribe themselves into our neural networks. We incorporate or introject those people who raise us into the tapestry of our own being. 


Difficult circumstances are the norm for anyone. How they are handled is what defines whether or not they lead to long-term suffering or provide fodder for growth, understanding, and maturity. Rupture is part of any relationship, but rupture needs to be followed by repair if relationships are to grow and remain healthy and close. 


The following is a list of dynamics that may occur in relational trauma:


  • The taboo against feeling
  • Problems with self-regulation
  • Hypervigilance/anxiety
  • Emotional constriction
  • Somatic disturbances
  • Survival guilt
  • Shame
  • Development of rigid psychological defenses
  • Learned helplessness
  • Loss of trust and faith
  • Unresolved grief
  • Denial/distorted reasoning
  • Loss of ability to accept caring and support from others
  • Tendency to isolate
  • Hyperreactivity/easily triggered
  • Traumatic bonding
  • Depression with feelings of despair
  • High risk behaviors
  • Cultivation of a false self
  • Desire to self-medicate


What we’re looking to do in relational trauma repair is to create mindfulness around certain events that have left residue within us in such a way that they actually change the way we live in our own bodies and interact in our relationships and our lives. We are rewiring parts of the limbic system into new and more balanced grooves; therefore, we need a process that, though it allows for a full range of affect to emerge and be expressed, does not rely totally on emotions within that range for healing to occur. It is not in the expressing of rage towards the father over and over again that a client will necessarily make it to the other side of that dysregulated experience both within him- or herself and the self in relation to that experience, nor is it exclusively in being able to describe the hurt and pain of it in words. It is in letting the thinking mind retake its rightful place as the CEO of the mind and body and make sense of the barrage of sensory input and accompanying emotion that became, in some way, disengaged from the personal record of experience. It’s in reweaving the pieces of the puzzle of our own experience, reexperiencing and reclaiming the fragments of self that were thrown out of consciousness, and making new and more informed meaning relevant to who we are. We become overwhelmed and dysregulated through trauma, the residue of which locks us into distorted reads on people, places, and things in our lives. These distorted reads drive us down destructive paths that repeat the core contents of our unacknowledged and unconscious experience. It is consciousness that will eventually lead to freedom no matter what road we take there. 


Acknowledgements: This article is partially excerpted from Dr. Dayton’s upcoming book, Neuropsychodrama in the Treatment of Relational Trauma, to be published by Health Communications in fall 2015.
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Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.