POSITIVE NEUROPLASTICITY: UNDERSTANDING TRAUMA (the big ‘T’ Traumas and the little ‘T’ Traumas)

Unresolved trauma shapes, influences, and limits our ability to reach the potential of our life’s purpose and personal evolution. Fear and disconnection, which are consequences of frozen remnants of traumatic experience, block our capacity for love.

Traumatic experiences lead to a disconnection from self and other taking us further and further away from the experience of loving self and others. Unresolved trauma shapes, influences, and limits our ability to reach the potential of our life’s purpose and personal evolution. Fear and disconnection, which are consequences of frozen remnants of traumatic experience, block the capacity for love; conversely, the restoration of love and connection reduces fear and the other negative emotional residues. This can be a catch-22 for people with a complex trauma history.

Body Oriented Psychotherapies are crucial in allowing individuals to remember and return to their true authentic loving selves; however the neurobiological and dissociative sequalae of unhealed trauma can prevent effective or lasting access to the self-state of unconditional love. We may talk about love and encourage self-loving exercises, but when there is a powerful protective part of us who does not feel worthy of love, deserving of love, or feels threatened by the positive experience of feelings such as love, those practices designed to return us to a loving state are rendered difficult if not impossible to achieve.

At this point it may be helpful to clarify what we mean by trauma. Many people who hear the word trauma think immediately of experiences such as war, rape, natural disaster, physical abuse, and neglect. Historically, trauma writers have referred to these as “big T” traumas. It is important to note that seemingly “normal” life events are also significant sources of traumatic experiences, the consequences of which include negative beliefs about the self, addictions, repetitive relationship problems, depression, and anxiety. Some examples of these familiar yet painful events are divorce, vacant parenting (parents are present “doing” all of the things that a “good” parents does, yet are not present energetically), overly critical parents, adoption, invasive surgeries, bullying, and problems during gestation or birth. These are often referred to as “little T” traumas. Similar neural mechanisms occur in response to both types of events given that survival terror is at the root of both categories of traumatic experience. It seems, however, that many people do not consider themselves trauma survivors, or connect their everyday emotional experiences, behaviours, and relationships to the factual existence of a compromised nervous system as a result of these “little T” traumas.

Have you ever had an interaction with your boss where you were overwhelmed with shame? Or been in an argument with your spouse and find yourself frozen and unable to respond? Do you find yourself behaving like a child or adolescent when things don’t go the way you expect or wish? Or maybe experience mood swings, bouts of depression, or substance use? These “symptoms” can be directly traced back to both “big T” and “little T” experiences, the foundation of which is unresolved survival terror and attachment disruption. The long-term effects of survival terror create the challenges to living peacefully and with joy.

Identifying when and how survival terror was “wired in” to our nervous system is something that even “little T” trauma survivors will benefit from exploring and resolving.

So how do we heal or change our “little T” traumas or “big T” traumas?

Psychotherapy has evolved with the goal of enabling individuals and families to return to optimal emotional, relational, and behavioural health. Unfortunately, the methods most frequently employed to further this goal focus on and set intention for changing our thinking – the neocortex or cortical functioning (a “top down” process). Given that trauma, dissociation, and defence responses are activated, driven, and stored in the subcortical (thalamic, basal ganglia, and brainstem) structures (Corrigan 2014), cognitively-based modalities are limited in terms of what can be achieved regarding access, re-processing, release, and reconsolidation of traumatic material. People cannot change the way they think if their midbrain is set in a response pattern that perpetuates survival of, and protection from, memories that are not experienced in a linear time frame. Furthermore, “understanding” and “reason” does not necessarily lead to healing.

Fortunately there is climate change in the therapy world. More and more therapists are willing to learn new and different healing modalities that are based in the integration of mind-body-spirit. In order to clear the nervous system of its “sludge,” and open the door to self-love brain and body-based safety is imperative even if emotional safety is not initially present.

The Embodied Presence Process Model is Body-Based

My development of the Embodied Presence Process (EPP) is exactly that, an integrated and nested modality that prepares the way for resources to be developed and utilized. The final goal is processing the traumatic material from a place of comprehensive neurobiological resourcing in various brain structures simultaneously. Consequently the willingness to engage in positive self-care practices is not only made possible, but is welcomed. The Embodied Presence Process model combines a variety of fundamental somatic, relational, and spiritual energetic methodologies to heal the trauma that prevents us from stepping into and embodying the universal resources of love, compassion, and spiritual energy that is in all of us.

The Power of Breath as a resource for trauma

The simplest (but not always easiest) resource to work with is breath. Breath is Life. Breathing with intention initiates a shift of awareness within the body’s physical, energetic, and perceptual systems providing an increased accessibility to mind-body conscious and sub-conscious processes. If one is consciously breathing they are experiencing the present moment and dissociation is prevented. Where breath goes, awareness goes, where awareness goes, energy moves – shaking up the homeostasis of the frozen neurological wiring of emotional dysregulation. This allows for a new orientation to and memory reconsolidation of profound wounding.

Paradox is again a potential concern here – mindful breathing prevents dissociation, and allows for full somatic presence and movement of frozen material. Full somatic presence enables energy to move and remembering to occur, which will lead to healing. The protective genius of the brain, body, and dissociated parts of self “know” that to remember in body-mind-spirit is to heal – and for many complex PTSD clients, healing can be perceived by these protective aspects of self to be threatening, dangerous, disloyal, and unconsciously undesirable despite conscious adult thinking. Consequently, breath and the resulting somatic embodiment is not only not perceived as a resource by the client, but is in fact “known” to be dangerous and therefore avoided.

So how do we work with the parts of us who are afraid to notice their breathing, afraid to be in their body in the present moment, and afraid to heal? Stepping into the obstacle, in this case the fear and the part of us that holds that fear is necessary. Validating and inviting understanding of the fear of embodiment and healing is the starting point. This also provides opportunity for relational attunement within the client, between client and therapist, and enhanced co-consciousness, (meaning awareness of separate aspects of
self which may be fighting for control or operating simultaneously.) It is necessary to be cognizant that the parts of self who prevent mindful breathing and drive dissociation also happen to be the parts that need much attention and love. Inviting these aspects of self to verbally speak about or manifest their story through somatic distress or disturbance in order to be “seen” or verified is the first step. Accepting and loving these parts of self in attuned, creative, and non-threatening ways facilitates the clearing of barriers to healing.


Lanius, U.F., Paulsen, S.L, and Corrigan, F.M. 2014. Neurobiology and Treatment of Traumatic Dissociation: Towards an Embodied Self. New York: Springer.

Ross, C. and Halpern, N. 2009. Trauma Model Therapy. Richardson: Manitou Communications.

More …

Read more about Trauma and PTSD Counselling with Embodied Presence HERE

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