Abuse-Trauma­ Prison

(Editor’s note: The Vanguard is proud to announce a new project in partnership with Incarcerated Allied Media.  Thanks to Dr. Joan Parkin and D. Razor Babb.  These articles are published by Incarcerated Individuals at Mule Creek State Prison and part of the Mule Creek Post publication.)

By D. Razor Babb

Every life is impacted by trauma. One in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Seventy percent of California prisoners spent time in the foster care.system while growing up.

Scientific advances inform us how ,trauma reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self­ control, and trust. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin, 2015) “Trauma drives us to . the very edge of comprehension.”

Trauma sufferers learn to shut down areas of the brain that transmit visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. In doing so, we also deaden the capacity to feel fully alive. This emotional withdrawal has significant impact on a child’s unstable sense of self. It leads to impulsivity, substance abuse, anger, shame, lack of empathy, sexual promiscuity, depression, and learning to exist in a ‘false self, or sub-persona, in order to protect us from the dangers of the world.

When we experience trauma our brain’s internal smoke detector to danger (the amygdala) releases, stress hormones and nervous-system responses as a survival mechanism, enabling us to deal with impending danger instinctively. The rational areas of the brain, located in the medial frontal cortex’ are de-activated in order to give all attention to survival instincts. When a child is subjected to ongoing trauma their fight-or-flight mechanism is constantly ‘on’ and logical thinking (development) is impaired.

Dr. van der Kolk writes: “In brain development, if you feel safe and loved your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play and corporation. If you are frightened and feel unwanted (through abuse, neglect, separation anxiety, etc.) your brain specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment. Continuous stress hormone activation suppresses development of reasoning capability, including a lack of growth in an understanding of empathy for others.

Trauma, especially chronic trauma, reduces the ability to decipher danger signals. Faulty alarm systems lead to blow-ups or shutdowns in response to innocuous comments or even facial expressions. We become hypersensitive to perceived threats, fear, disappointments, shame, criticism, feelings of unworthiness. We then overreact to minor stimulus, operating from a paradigm of intense or even extreme defensiveness.”

As posited by noted British psychologist John Bowlby, “Childrens’ disturbed behavior is a response to actual experience to neglect, brutality, separation. We learn self-care from the way we are cared for. The skill of self-regulation is dependent on how harmonious our early interactions with caregivers are. Children whose parents are reliable sources of comfort and strength have a lifetime advantage.”

Attachment is the secure base from which a child experiences the world. Having safe haven (parental bonds) promotes self-reliance and instills a sense of sympathy and helpfulness to others in distress. In the intimate give and take of the attachment bond children learn that other people have feelings and thoughts that are both similar to and different from theirs. They become in-sync with their environment and with people around them, developing self-awareness, empathy and self-control, impulse control and self-motivation that makes it possible to become contributing members of the greater social culture.

Harvard professor Henry Murray, a pioneer of personality theory, states, “For people abused and traumatized as children, the world is filled with triggers.” For trauma sufferers it is imperative to redraw inner maps and incorporate a sense of trust and confidence in the future.

Many psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health experts and leading criminologist agree that childhood trauma is the #1 public health crisis; it is the cause, and an overcrowded penal system is the manifested societal effect. Trauma, childhood abuse and neglect emerge as THE most important predictor of adult functioning. The key issue in serious behavioral issues is the nature of the parent child relationship.

Mental health specialist Dr. Alan Sroufe relates, “The foundations of our humanity are the relationships and interactions that shape our minds and brains when we are young, and that gives substance and meaning to our entire lives. To fully understand how we become the person we are the complex, step-by-step evolution of our orientations, capacities, and behavior over time requires an understanding of the process of development, how all those factors work together.”

Dr. van der Kolk explains, “The impact of childhood abuse depends in large part on the age at which it begins. When children feel pervasively angry or guilty or are chronically frightened about abandonment, they become filled with rage due to rejection or harsh treatment. Expressing may be forbidden or dangerous. When children disown powerful experiences (by masking, numbing, or resorting to sub-personas to deal with overwhelming trauma) this creates chronic distrust of others and distrust of their own senese.”

This sets up a distorted belief system ripe for criminality. As Dave and Vaneesa Sloan teach in their Life Support Alliance, Connect-the-Dots course, criminality can be traced back to specific events that created a false belief system.

van der Kolk continues: “When we are triggered into hyper-arousal we are pushed outside our windows of tolerance, outside the range of optimal functioning. We become reactive and disorganized, panic and fly into rage, or shut down and numb. The fundamental issue in resolving trauma and stress is to restore the proper balance between the rational and emotional sectors of our brains, so we feel in charge of how we conduct life.

“To regain control over self, we must revisit the trauma, when doing so feels safe, and confront what has happened to us. The first thing to do is to find ways to cope without feeling overwhelmed by the sensations and emotions associated with the past.”

Deep breathing, consciously calming the emotional mind, meditation, listening to music, talking to someone you trust, seeking out professional guidance, reading self-help or even distracting entertainment literature, watching a funny movie, exercise, yoga, eating ice cream, taking a relaxing shower, these are a few ways to begin to take control of your mind and your life.

Rehabilitative groups such as GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power) are valuable resources for understanding and dealing with trauma. Contact your counselor or group signup coordinator for information. If you are experiencing overwhelming trauma related issues, you are urged to reach out to health care professionals and talk to trusted friends and family for support. Past trauma doesn’t have to dictate your life in the present. Help is available. (Source: The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, Penguin, 2015)

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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