Y’all I just finished reading “What Happened To You?” co-authored by Oprah and Bruce Perry, from whom I received post-graduate consultancy at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch. It.Is.Everything. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me that it resonated so hard with the work I’ve done in my career but there are moments of reflection and moments of “ah ha!” that really do SPARK my passion for this work and reaffirm the alignment of my current work with my larger journey as a professional. The basic premise is that instead of asking “What’s WRONG with you?” we should be asking “What HAPPENED to you?”. I highly encourage colleagues and clients alike to invest the time (and energy) necessary to read this book and reflect on its usefulness to you and your clients.
Here are some of my favorite takeaways that SPARKED for me in reading this exceptional work:
The first is especially prescient for all the expectant parents out there: The experiences we have in the FIRST TWO MONTHS OF LIFE make a more significant impact on our stress response than any other period of time.
I’ll geek out for a minute here to explain why this is and why it connects with my work so intensely: Neural connections make memory, the majority of memory happens non-verbally. We learn throughout our lives but never so much as when we are forming so as adults we may not know WHY our stress response is activated, especially if it is triggered by a deep memory of trauma, fear, or uncertainty that occurred in utero or in the first few months/years of life. How we respond to stress throughout our lives is a combination of nature (personality, genes) and nurture (experience) but like many developmental processes there are critical periods.
Wanna see that in action?: A fetus grows a maximum of 20,000 neurons per SECOND whereas adults max out at 7,000 neurons per DAY; at birth an infant will have 86 billion neurons!
I remember in my theater training some of my classmates at NYU had to recreate their birth experience – seemed super “hippy dippy” at the time but in considering the above, I’m not so sure! Also, every now and again someone inquires about our birth trauma groups for themselves – wanting to work through what they understand to be an activation of their stress response that they’ve connected back to their birth experience, which they understand to have been traumatic from the narratives told to them. While this isn’t what our groups are for, it’s super interesting stuff and as our understanding of multi-generational trauma grows I anticipate there will be more research-supported interventions to address things like this.
Before anyone starts thinking that the prospect of healing is hopeless let me introduce the second thing that sparked for me: “Post-traumatic wisdom.” This beauty comes from a lot of work and journey in moving from a traumatic event, which caused a stress reaction and developed into trauma, which processed into a “neural typical traumatic response”, which resulted in resilience.
Growth and power come not from living an easy, predictable life but from the pain and the struggle and the challenges we experience AND process. Yes, a naturally regulated stress response is more likely to process traumatic events without becoming traumatized (huzzah!) but those who develop skills of regulation intentionally have the understanding and wisdom to act with intention when their stress response systems are triggered.