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Slow Down to Speed Up: An Introduction to Healing from Childhood Trauma

By: Ernest Ellender, PhD

This Is How We Heal From Painful Childhoods: A Practical Guide for Thriving Past Intergenerational Stress and Trauma starts with a focus on the initial steps of recovering from traumatic and stressful childhoods. These are presented as rules that each help understand what is needed, as well as guidelines for how to get there. Here are the first four rules (chapters):

#1 - Thrive or survive: you decide.

#2 - Who you are in sympathetic is not who you are in parasympathetic.

#3 - Trauma Lies are just that... LIES!

#4 - We must slow down to speed up.

The first chapter presents readers with a decision to either continue living as most survivors of childhood trauma do - which is to survive their day-to-day lives - or to choose a different pat of making drastic personal changes that will predictably lead to greater thriving in life. While there are many areas one may choose to focus on improving (finances, relationships, parenting, occupation, etc.), the most foundational is that of personal stability in body and mind. In order to progress towards thriving in all of these realms, chapter one offers the main strategy of picturing, in vivid detail, what thriving would look like for you: "When running a race, it helps to know where the finish line is!" As you sharpen your pictured goal of personal success, both the path and the obstacles to that success become more obvious. Many obstacles are obvious, but chapter two tackles a massive obstacle specific to childhood trauma...

Rule #2 - Who you are in sympathetic is not who you are in parasympathetic - suggests that each of us has two versions of ourselves. The first is the natural you who exists in the absence of fear, trauma, or conflict. This stable, healthy person has natural curiosities, creativity, personality, and interpersonal inclinations that are attractive to both self and others. The other version of human beings comes out when they feel threatened, when they are in open conflict with others, or when they believe their life or body is in danger. When this happens, the human body's sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated to prepare the body for the survival responses - fight, flight, freeze, or fawn - that may be necessary to survive the situation. In these moments, the SNS turns the calm, stable you into a reactionary, combative, skittish, paranoid, even aggressive 'monster' self focused on defending yourself. While this SNS is an amazing evolutionary system that has enabled humans (and other animals) to survive harsh mother nature throughout the millennia, a problem arises when the person's SNS refuses to calm down after the danger has gone away. In the common case of family trauma presenting daily or weekly dangers to children, each child's anatomy adapts by remaining in a chronic state of SNS arousal instead of succumbing to the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that allows the child to 'rest and digest' while developing their stable, healthy adult selves. This chronic survival mode throughout much of childhood develops ultra-defensive, highly reactionary, survival-minded, distrusting adults who behave in ways that may help them survive, but actively prevent thriving! This concept - chronic survival mode is not good and causes the 'monster' you to come out - suggests that your first major goal becomes to exit your daily survival mode so that you can live in the peaceful and stabler PNS mode. Chapter two offers a tutorial and suggestions for developing self-soothing skills like controlled breathing and muscle relaxation to empower you to largely control your own nervous system!

While developing your self-soothing skills, it quickly becomes necessary to dive into another key obstacle to thriving that is also specific to survivors of intergenerational family dysfunction, and that is the existence of Trauma Lies!

Rule #3 - Trauma Lies are just that... LIES! - defines Trauma Lies as the guidelines for survival that a child's mind comes up with in the midst of chronic stress and trauma. In order to survive abuse or neglect, a child's brain creates deep-seated beliefs about how to behave and what to think about self and others in order to survive their dangerous world. For example, "I must be violent to survive" may help one child survive childhood, whereas another traumatized child may believe "I must be submissive to survive." Beliefs about others may include: "Men are dangerous," "Women will hurt you if you give them a chance," or "People are manipulative and predatory." While these instinctive, self-directing beliefs may very well have helped these children survive their painful childhoods, the beliefs typically remain quietly stuck in the adult survivor's subconscious even though the adult is no longer in that vulnerable childhood circumstance. These beliefs, in adulthood, become lies because they are not completely true, and worse, these beliefs destroy survivors' chances of establishing healthy, stable, mature relationships with others and with self. An adult survivor of childhood neglect may have the opportunity to connect with a healthy (enough) intimate partner, but then sabotage the relationship with dysfunctional behaviors because they believe their Trauma Lie that "deep down, I know that everyone will leave me once they realize how unworthy and boring I am." The chapter offers several techniques for flushing out of the unconscious your own Trauma Lies so that you can begin trading them out for Life Truths, which are truer statements about the world, others, and the self that offer more hope, reality, and stability to the childhood trauma survivor.

Rule #4, "We must slow down to speed up," points out that the task of subduing one's SNS while exchanging Trauma Lies for Life Truths is an extremely challenging task that requires a ridiculous amount of time, focus, and psychological energy. While many survivors are stuck in a lifestyle of putting out fires, suggesting that they "don't have time to slow down," the fact of the matter is that they will never exit this chaotic lifestyle until they learn how to slow down long enough to make meaningful changes that will drastically speed up their therapeutic timeline over the years toward thriving. The chapter then proposes a simple - but not easy - procedure for success with it's 1-2-3 Breathe-Plan-Do! formula. This formula offers its daily practitioners a procedure for making more mindful, purposeful, and healthier decisions that will rapidly bring more positive results than reacting to perceived dangers, as they previously did while stuck in survival mode functioning.

In short, rules #1-4 present educational concepts paired with functional techniques that offer survivors a road map for their first year of intensely addressing the lingering issues of their painful childhoods. Learning how to slow down, relax deeply, fix dysfunctional thinking, and choose new paths will enable survivors to more efficiently absorb the rest of the rules and skills throughout the book. While working with clients brand new to therapy, Ernest Ellender, PhD recongnized that rules 1-4 could stand alone as a massive improvement in stability, health, and quality of life for clients who normalized the 1-2-3 formula in their daily lives.

These insights, and many more, can be found in This Is How We Heal From Painful Childhoods: A Practical Guide for Thriving Past Intergenerational Stress and Trauma. Author Ernest Ellender, PhD wrote this book based on his experiences of working with trauma clients since his undergraduate years in the 1990's.

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