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Trauma – Adjusting to a Threatening Situation

By Kaylee Curilla, Psy.D

“We’re only as needy as our unmet needs.” -John Bowlby (1969)

We do not come into this world with the ability to regulate our own emotions. We do that in relationships.

safe-trauma---new-directions-counselingBeing in a co-regulated relationship with a caregiver is a right we have at birth. Being in this relationship teaches us to how to attune to and navigate our own emotions. In childhood trauma, this process of learning to navigate and trust our own emotions is disrupted. As children, we attune to the caregiver we have. When our caregivers are over-bearing, more focused on their own needs, or are inattentive, we still find ways to attach to them so that we can survive.

Trauma is adjusting to a situation that is threatening. It is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Trauma occurs when our resources are overwhelmed and we are helpless. Your nervous system evaluates the threat/safety (this is not a conscious process) of the environment. Trauma makes us more attuned to pick up threat (so much so that we perceive non-threats in the environment as threats).  The nature of trauma is that we relive the past as if it is the present.

The time to be self-centered is in childhood.

Children who do not have the focus on their own needs, learn to attune to the needs of others, dismissing their own feelings and needs as adults. As children, if something goes wrong in our relationship with our caregivers, we blame ourselves. Blaming ourselves gives a false sense of control and a hope of survival. It does not feel safe for disruptions of attachment to be our caregivers fault. The way we relate to our caregivers sets the blueprint for how we interact in the rest of our relationships. Therefore, the way we learned to attach and relate as children is carried with us through our lives into our close interpersonal relationships.

Internalizing this blame can create feelings of shame, avoidance, disconnection, and self-doubt into adulthood.  When faced with this shame around trauma, it is important to remember that your response to trauma was designed to save your life. During trauma, your body is preparing you to die with the least amount of pain.

Because we carry these “survival strategies” into our adult relationships, we may have difficulty connecting with others in ways that we really want to. This may look like frustration with ourselves for repeating the same patterns, a difficulty in expressing our needs and wants in relationships, or feeling overly-focused on what the other needs and wants at the expense of our own needs.

What you can do?


When trauma occurs, one’s expectations of the world are shattered and the world and the people in it no longer feel safe.

  • It only takes one safe, entrusted relationship to help to heal from the impacts of the trauma; even if a person was at one point threatened and had no safe person they could talk to at the time of the threat. This healing relationship could be with a therapist, partner, friend, or family member. This is in large part due to co-regulation and feeling securely attached (can involve disclosing about the trauma, but does not necessarily need to.) The key is that it is a relationship that allows you to feel deeply safe.
  • Use mindfulness to ground in your body in the here-and-now.  Mindfulness helps shift the focus to what is going on inside of you in the present moment. This helps to move away from the survival need of hyper-focusing on others/changes in the environment. When the past is infiltrating you, one grounding statement may be “I’m scared because the past is coming in, but I’m safe now.” Therapy can also help you to be able to feel your feelings in a safe way, as well as help you to pay attention to your feelings and needs without the past invading. Part of working through trauma is experiencing painful emotions and knowing that you are safe. You can have feelings and no one will get hurt.

Contact New Directions Counseling to develop a close, safe relationship with one our compassionate counselors. They have the expertise to set the limits needed while providing a safe space. Call us today 724.934.3905