How do Adverse Childhood Experiences lead to Adaptive Survival Styles?
The knowledge base on Adverse Childhood Experiences has been widely disseminated. Adaptive Survival Styles – less so. Many of us who have experienced such are familiar with Vincent Felitti’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Subsequently, work published by the likes of Bessel Van der Kolk and Gabor Mate has been instrumental in raising awareness of developmental trauma.
For the purposes of this page, five key factors have been generally accepted:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Developmental Trauma are different. They merit their own definitions.
- Trauma is not the events we experience. Rather, trauma is our reaction – what happens inside Us – to the events we experience.
- As children, we have two base needs. Attachment (our relationship with our primary caregivers) and authenticity (growing to be who we really are). Authenticity will be compromised to protect attachment.
- There are clear correlations between Adverse Childhood Experiences and increased likelihoods of experiencing a wide range of physical and psychological maladies later in life.
- Adverse Childhood Experiences can lead to us developing our Adaptive Survival Styles.
The Adaptive Survival Styles
This work has identified five Adaptive Survival Styles which have broad areas of overlap. Most can identify with some more than others while others can identify with them all. The five Adaptive Survival Styles have been described as Connection, Attunement, Trust, Autonomy, and Love.
In the short-term, adopting elements of the survival strategies may prove effective. This can lead to us learning beliefs which may be true at the time. It is likely that such beliefs will become increasingly less resourceful – or indeed damaging – to us as we go through life. When this happens, we refer to these beliefs as limiting beliefs. The concept of limiting beliefs is an issue I work through with almost all my clients. How to explore them, how to diffuse them, how to move on from them, and how to use that insight (typically with hypnosis / self-hypnosis) to move on in life.
An element which some may find quite challenging is that, on occasions, the adaptations we make in response to adverse childhood experiences may lead to adulthood capabilities which come to be beneficial. They may have a significant influence on the adult life we live.
Adaptive Survival Styles – Connection
Our basic need, as social animals, to be, and feel, connected to those around us. Existentially crucial when, as children, we are completely reliant on our primary caregivers for our continued existence.
Problems with connection arise when we feel our environment is not safe and welcoming. When there is active abuse, or rejection; a general feeling that nobody is there for us. This can lead to a general ambivalence about being alive.
When this basic need is not met, we disconnect from forming relationships, from our emotions and our body. This gives us a dilemma: as a social animal I need to connect, but I am afraid to.
As we form our views of the world, we can come to form beliefs such as; I am unlovable, I don’t have much right to exist, I don’t belong, relationships are scary. Adults who have adopted the connection survival style often do not feel safe in the world. They often have difficulty acknowledging their emotions and find it difficult to connect with others. We’re often solitary, with very small social groups and spend a lot of time on our own.
Because it is so fundamental to our social nature, issues with connection in childhood can initiate long term processes manifesting a wide range of adulthood issues which may include IBS, Inflammation, ADHD, OCD, self-harm among others.
Those who have adopted the connection survival style may become more intuitive, spiritually connected, creative thinkers than they would have been otherwise.
Adaptive Survival Styles – Attunement
Our need to feel for attachment, for physical and emotional nourishment, social engagement and receiving caring attention.
When our attunement needs are not met, we can become ambivalent and neglectful of them. We can find it difficult to know what we need, we don’t ask for our needs to be met (or we can feel shameful for asking) and we can have difficulty receiving care in our lives.
As we form our views of the world, we can come to form beliefs such as; I shouldn’t express my needs, I am deprived, I don’t deserve much, having needs is shameful, I’m not meant to have what I really want.
Because attunement – having our basic needs met – is so fundamental to our social nature and developing from through dependence then independence then interdependence, issues with attunement in childhood can initiate long term processes manifesting a wide range of adulthood issues which may include a lack of energy, low libido, shallow breathing among others. Issues which, themselves can have a series of knock-on effects.
Those who have adopted the attunement survival style may become more emotionally intelligent, supportive of others, accepting of diversity willing to work at the edges of human experience (aid workers, hospice carers) than they would have been otherwise.
Adaptive Survival Styles – Trust
Feeling the security of believing our primary caregivers will consistently meet our needs.
When this basic need is not met, we can find it difficult to trust others, find it difficult to manage in inter-dependent relationships, have difficulty in asking for help and feel the need to be overly controlling with others and their environments.
As we form our views of the world, we can come to form beliefs such as; others are just out to use me, I have to succeed in everything I try, to struggle is un-acceptable, people must not see my weaknesses.
Those who have adopted the trust survival style may become more decisive and focused, natural leaders, self-reliant, and better able to thrive in the face of challenge, danger, or conflict than they would have been otherwise.
Adaptive Survival Styles – Autonomy
Our need to feel supported in developing our sense of independence and autonomy.
When our autonomy needs are not met, we can feel unsafe in determining what we do and don’t like, feel unsafe in expressing ourselves. This may lead to ambivalence about progressing from dependence to independence to inter-dependence.
As we form our views of the world we can come to form beliefs such as; I must please all those around me, making decisions is scary, I’m obliged to say yes (when I really want to say no).
Because autonomy – growing through the dependence to independence to inter-dependence – is so fundamental to our personal growth, issues with autonomy in childhood can initiate long term processes manifesting a wide range of adulthood issues which may include difficulty in knowing what we want, feeling controlled and burdened by other’s agendas and difficulties in setting boundaries and resolving conflicts. Issues which, themselves can have a series of knock-on effects.
Those who have adopted the autonomy survival style may become more grounded and stable, may be very loyal, may be good problem solvers and mediators, and may be more focused on being in service to others than they would have been otherwise.
Adaptive Survival Styles – Love
Our need to feel connected and intimate.
When our love needs are not met, we can feel rejected and invalidated, as though we must be perfect to be lovable, that we must close our hearts to protect ourselves. This may lead to ambivalence about feeling lovable and living with an open heart
As we form our views of the world, we can come to form beliefs such as: I am scared of my sexuality, I prefer to reject than to be rejected, I don’t belong here, emotions are a sign of weakness.
Because love is so fundamental to our wellbeing, issues with love in childhood can initiate long term processes manifesting a wide range of adulthood issues which may include difficulty in giving and receiving love, difficulty with intimacy, over-avoidance of potential failure and an unhealthy focus on status, performance, and achievement. Issues which, themselves can have a series of knock-on effects.
Those who have adopted the love survival style may stay focused on learning and development to achieve success, may be more committed to excellence, more able to follow through to completion than they would have been otherwise.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and Trauma
As a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, my main interest is in post-trauma growth. Acknowledging the past, understanding the influence it has had – and is still having on our lives today – and, primarily, doing the best we can to build the best version of ourselves. Since around 2007, I have been studying the field of wellbeing psychology and it heavily influences my practice. There are very close parallels between the wellbeing psychology model (the well-known PERMA model:
and the models of post-trauma growth which are built on:
A greater appreciation of life
Improving relationships with others
Increased open-ness to new possibilities
Recognising and developing personal strengths
Spiritual development (which may or may not involve organised religion)
Many in the post trauma phase can enhance their wellbeing by implementing the PERMA model as it applies to their life.
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