Trauma, Brain and Relationship Helping Children Heal
From NEURONS TO NEIGHBORHOODS
Second Annual Conference
Interview with Paula Thomson, Psy.D.
DR. THOMSON, FOR REFERENCE CAN YOU TELL ME YOUR NAME, WHAT YOUR SPECIALTY IS AND WHERE YOU WORK?
My name is Paula Thomson. I'm a clinical psychologist. I work in Tarzana, California, in the Valley. I also am a tenured faculty member at York University in Toronto, Canada, where I work in the fine arts department, in the department of theater, teaching movement for actors, opera singers, and dancers.
IN YOUR AREA OF MOVEMENT, HOW DOES MOVEMENT RELATE TO TRAUMA? HOW DO THOSE TWO ELEMENTS CONNECT?
When I'm working in the studio with artists, you can see a trauma history right away. And this is the paradox. You can either see it in the body posture, where they're collapsed down and in that kind of hypertonic, alert, hyper-aroused state, or they have a really collapsed passive body stance. You can also, especially with dancers, have it completely masked where their body won't reveal any trauma, because they have trained it to have a language that is never going to speak about their trauma. What you see then, as soon as you give them free improvisation and exploration, is you see the same old steps that they learned by rote, reappearing again and again.
The range of expression and exploration in whether they're hypertonic or collapsed or completely masked, you always see it in exploration. You see either constricted movement patterns or you see flooding. When they flood with memories, then you start to see the body shaking, you start to see them. Sometimes they'll even faint, collapse right down on the floor, or curl up in a little fetus rocking. So you can see it when they do the free exploration right away.
HOW IS THIS PART OF YOUR PRACTICE THERAPEUTIC?
As a clinician I'm always watching what their body language is speaking to me, even the trained dancer. If there's eating disorders or if there's self -injurious behavior, which in my practice I have a lot of people with those kind of pathologies, I don't worry about it too much, because it's a symptom that's expressing their trauma. It's usually tension reduction and I just address the amount of terror they have and how they're coping with it. We try to work with being able to stay with the feelings that are intolerable and put the past memories in the past so they can enjoy the creative moments in the present, which is a long, hard road to be able to differentiate that.
THE "PAIN OF THE PAST, " IS THIS IN REFERENCE TO, CHILDHOOD TRAUMA? IN YOUR ESTIMATION, ARE THESE PEOPLE WHO HAVE SUFFERED FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA,?
Absolutely. The childhood trauma doesn't have to be that far in the past. For example, one young dancer I worked with, she was 11, and her mother was extremely psychotically depressed and suicidal. This little 11-year-old was care-taking mom. She came up to me one day and she said, "Is it really weird when you look in the mirror and you don't recognize yourself even though you know you're supposed to be there, but you can't find yourself in the mirror with everybody else there?" You just knew she was overwhelmed with fear that her mother would die. What would she do? What would she do with her little brother and sister at home? This poor kid was so traumatized by the mother who wasn't able to mother.
HOW COULD WE SUPPORT TRAUMATIZED CHILDREN IN ORDER TO INCREASE RESILIENCE?
Let's use that little girl. She's a perfect example. She was a single mom, completely overwhelmed, and my heart ached for the mother, because she really did want to do well for her kids. She just was so sick she wasn't able to. She had the wherewithal to get these kids into arts programs where they could have some form of expression. That helped the kids a lot. Then this little girl, there's a resilience there in her, she found me. To find a mentor or somebody else who would provide another experience, another modeling situation, and solutions to solve these problems. What she taught me was that to empathize too much with that situation overwhelmed her. I actually had to also show robustness in that she was going to make it and things were going to work out. She needed that hope as well. The mentoring figure, if they're not too judgmental and they have enough understanding, can provide options, problem solving, hope, purpose, and meaning. She gradually began to build a stronger self-esteem. She's now 20 in a university and flourishing. Her mom did something well. She got her in an environment where she could get support.
THAT'S GREAT. THANK YOU. HOW IS CREATIVITY AFFECTED BY EARLY CHILDHOOD TRAUMA?
Usually, and again it's paradoxical, trauma can constrict the range of exploration. I view creativity in two phases: the initial phase, which I kind of phrase as the inspiration phase. Lots of other theorists have used that wording, where ideas just come, you're not quite sure; the muse descends on you, or however metaphorically we describe that phase. It's a process where our cortical activity in the front is hypoactive, and then things kind of bubble up to the surface. In the second phase, elaboration phase, where we kind of detail, make choices, elaborate, and expand. We can go back and forth between those phases during that whole creative process.
With a traumatized artist, they tend to be frightened of that first inspiration phase, because they're letting go of some of that control that they've been using to regulate painful feelings. They may stay in longer periods in that elaboration more detailed phase. They may become more interpretive or more technical as an artist. They also may use a lot of substances to be able to stay in that inspirational phase and just kind of stay in an altered, zoned-out state. If they have high fantasy proneness, which they often do, they will engage in that and reduce novelty experiences. So they actually constrict learning possibilities, even though they may be having high fantasy activity around a particular theme.
In a lot of artists with trauma history, you'll see glorious, glorious pieces of artwork coming from them, but it gets constricted around a theme. Mercifully, they've got the technical ability to create great artwork. But, they don't have the range of expression; that traumatic content takes over. You can see that constriction in one way or another. Often times if there is a supportive other, another attachment figure, where they're feeling supported and grounded, you can see more freedom and that flourishing. Somebody like Edgar Allan Poe, for example, he had a horrible childhood. As soon as his wife died, who became his next most important attachment figure, he just disintegrated into addictions, alcohol, and never created, and then died shortly thereafter.
The other piece with trauma is it has an alostetic(?) load, which means that those neuro circuits that are being traumatized get pruned down and thinned down. Then you have compensatory circuits covering those pruned-down circuits. Over time, that alostetic(?) load starts to manifest in autoimmune disorders, heart rate problems, and other variables, so that there's more cardiac problems and often a shorter lifespan. The alostetic(?) load can lead to a very devastating end of an artistic career. We often see artists who are dying in quite painful ways with those trauma histories.
DR.THOMSON, CAN YOU EXPLAIN ALOSTETIC(?) LOAD?
Alostetic(?) load is describing a dynamic of neural pruning. When we're infants, we have the most increase in dendritic aberration. That's neural growth, which makes multiple brain circuits, and brain regions start to become highly functional. With severe neglect and severe abuse, although neglect is in fact worse, you get a reduction or a pruning away of those neurons and those dendrites. You get less circuits operating. With that reduction in circuits, it causes other areas, or the circuits that are remaining, to have to do functions that they normally wouldn't be doing.
So, for example, in the right hemisphere, which is in a proliferation of growth in the first year-and-a-half, if there's deficits in that first year-and-a-half, you've got a reduced possibility in the right hemisphere. Then when the left hemisphere starts to enter its growth period, the left hemisphere is going to have to compensate for some of the functions the right hemisphere did. In particular, the connections down into the autonomic nervous system, which is regulating the body. So the left hemisphere, although it has connections into the autonomic nervous system, it's not as robust as the right hemisphere's function would have primarily been. That's an example of an alostetic(?) load, where it places a load on the circuitry that aren't designed to carry that function. After a period of time, it begins to wear away, the body starts to decompensate from that thinned down reduction of neuro circuitry.
I loved today. The presenters were extremely inspiring. Dr. Bruce Perry, he just spoke so eloquently about how we are the adults and it's up to us to make the changes. We can't sit back and think that there will be another "they" who is going to make the changes. It is up to us. He also very clearly told us that we can't in-fight and erode our own strengths, which tends to happen in the mental health field. We kind of undermine each other trying to protect our turf.
HOW DID THE CONFERENCE AFFECT YOUR WORK? IF YOU FEEL IT DID AFFECT YOUR WORK, HOW DO YOU INCORPORATE SOME OF THIS INTO YOUR WORK?
I have been trying to incorporate this, but the key piece is that we need to make this message go out to a wider populous, to the general public. I'm in the process of trying to write a book about the traumatized imagination. I keep toying, do I write to my fellow practitioners or do I write to the lay public. Clearly we have to speak to the entire breadth of that population, because this message is vital. From what Dr. Perry was saying, the general public is much more receptive to this message than our own peers. Maybe we need to be just speaking to the general populace and try to reduce neglect and abuse in the young child, start to create a safe haven for them. The key pieces that I picked up from Dr. Bruce Perry are that it's up to us. We can't wait for someone else to do this spreading of the message. We can do something about it. Children, especially young children, have the most possibility for health and plasticity, for overcoming these early traumas if we, as a community, a large community, support them. If we continue to operate in isolation, we're not going to build that community support. We need to build a wide community of support. And it's us, not they. It's each one of us doing it now, not later, but now.
GREAT. THANK YOU SO MUCH DR. THOMSON. IT'S SO INTERESTING.
Thank you. It was fun.
(END OF INTERVIEW)
Stan Tatkin, Psy.D. - Psychotherapist
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