Healing Your Inner ChildEmbodied healing practices and the neuroscience of trauma
Healing your inner child: an article about embodied healing practices and the neuroscience of trauma. Approx 8-10 mins read.
Healing Your Inner Child: A Hidden Past Reveals Itself
In my twenties I had a series of repetitive dreams about a young child that eventually became the catalyst for healing my inner child. The dreams signposted parts of me trapped in past events which my conscious mind had no knowledge of. As well as revealing a hidden history, the dreams pointed towards a means of inner child healing too.
In one a young toddler was dressed in pretty pink clothing with a bonnet: however her wide eyes were strangely glazed and she teetered around looking lost. Sensing her distress I instinctively reached to pick her up, but a visceral stench of stale urine woke me up wretching. In another dream months later, I was finally able to reach and bathe the same young girl.
Whilst visiting my Dad I had one dream of many in which she would narrowly survive an impending catastrophe:
I glance to the horizon and see that a larger wave is approaching. I want to warn her but realise I have no words and am confined to gesture alone. I begin to wave my arms and instinctively she looks towards me: through some private sign language I manage to convey the danger to her.
I asked my Dad if he knew why I had such dreams so repetitively, I had no narrative to explain them. A full 24 hours later he quietly related the following: I was born in July, sometime during the following winter my mom went to bed and didn’t get up for a month. He would come home from work and find her in bed with “both of you children feral” (I had a brother four years older than me), my nappy unchanged.
In one sentence the origin of my dream – particularly the stale urine stench – became abundantly clear.
They went to the doctor who told my mom to pull herself together, further compounding their sense of shame and helplessness: Dad told me how they hid what was happening from friends and family alike. A pattern of spiralling down into a late winter withdrawal followed by an early spring resurgence repeated for a few years, after which they returned to the doctors; this time my mom was was given a hysterectomy, some pills and it stopped.
The experience was not spoken of again; it was erased from the shared family narrative. However its imprint remained wired in my attachment systems, my limbic brain, my nervous system – replaying throughout my life till I could find my way back to the source.
Healing your inner child: the touch you needed to receive
Looking back over the dreams, I notice how my relationship with this night-time manifestation of my inner child, is often expressed through sensations rather than words:
I fill a bath filled with hot water and bubbles, I bathe her all over with white soap, I dry her with soft white towels that swallow her up. I tuck her into a bed of white cotton sheets and stroke her to sleep, purring in her newly sweet scented, soft and fluffy body.
These dreams point to the ways in which trauma wires itself deep into our bodies – ‘Your Body Keeps the Score’ as trauma expert Dr Bessel van der Kolk states in his book – and its through our bodies that we can take steps towards healing our inner child too.
One practice I have found immensely helpful comes from The Wheel of Consent: an embodied consent practice developed by one of my teachers Dr Betty Martin. ‘Waken the hands’ is the first solo stage of a touch practice in which we learn to notice whats happening inside our hands, awakening sensitivity and developing our capacity to choose pleasurable sensations.
Most of us grew up touched by hands that were insensitive to our needs: a simple example would be a nappy changed by a parent hurrying to leave the house, when we needed to rest or be held. Some of us may not have received any touch at all, or perhaps we received touch that was harmful, or about the needs of an adult rather than our own.
These early experiences can be further compounded by industrial scale schooling in which subtleties of bodily sensation and feeling are overridden by other priorities of learning. Systems of oppression and advantage are impactful too, shaping a child’s developing sense of agency and the relationship between their corporeal selves and sense of identity.
Our childhood experiences can leave us unable to respond to difficult feelings in simple and embodied ways. Touch is a major way we can learn to self soothe and while its beautiful to receive this from others, it’s a simple fact that our own hands are always there. Self soothing gestures from sensitive hands could include: placing a hand on our own belly or heart, self hugging or steadying contact, rubbing or patting to release tension.
Using ‘waken the hands’ practice as a foundation, we can learn how to give ourselves the touch we didn’t receive, supporting an embodied and compassionate relationship with self. This won’t change whatever systemic injustices we face in the present, however it’s one way of growing resilience for whatever moves us.
An embodied practice will be offered in the workshop Healing Your Inner Child – the touch you needed to receive (also available on video in 2021). I will expand upon the following neuroscience of trauma in the workshop too.
Healing Your Inner Child: Our Brains Are Wired to Compartmentalise
Our childhood brains are structured in ways that support compartmentalisation. This fact can enable us to survive (especially when things are really bad), as it provides a way to bypass feelings that would otherwise be too much to bear. What in childhood offers us a way to carry on, can in adulthood become maladaptive.
The left and right hemispheres of our brains work together in complex ways, however some broad principles of dominance apply to each side:
This representation of the left hemisphere says “I think therefore I am”: the speech bubble reflects its dominance in our language learning and the development of speech.
The right hemisphere however is better encapsulated by the phrase ‘I feel therefore I am’ – pointing to it’s dominance in our emotional and physical selves.
Each hemisphere governs many other things in complex and interdependent ways. However this broad division between what we know of ourselves through language and speech, or sensing and feeling has some important implications growing up.
We are born right brain dominant and gradually evolve full left brain expression and dominance by about the age of 18. The corpus callosum is a bridge that connects the two hemispheres: it is not fully expressed until about 12 years of age and its development can be repressed by adverse childhood experiences.
Our growing brains have structural fault lines that enable compartmentalisation. Childhood experiences can register as feeling and sensation, detached from the contextualising capacities of the left hemisphere.
Echoes of past experiences can resurface later in life in the form of overwhelming sensations and feelings – or the absence of any feeling at all – and may compromise our relationship with the present.
Known as emotional or somatic flashbacks, this spilling of the past into the present can leave us overwhelmed with feelings of shame, despair, numbness or anger (to name a few ways they may appear). People often understand flashbacks to mean memories of past events flooding into the present in the form of images. What is less well known is that we can also experience flashbacks through our bodies – returning to emotional (combined with physical) states we experienced during stressful and traumatic events in the past.
This is particularly true of childhood events due to the way our brains grow, facilitating compartmentalisation across the left and right hemispheres. Emotional flashbacks in turn trigger actions that helped us to survive the stressful and traumatic experiences growing up. These survival responses – known as fight, flight, freeze, submit or attach – become problematic when what we are reacting to is an echo of the past, one which does not accurately reflect our current circumstances.
It is important here once again to highlight that traumatic events don’t only reside in the past: healing our inner child is not all we need for a peaceful and prosperous present. Many people face inherently unsafe conditions as a daily fact of life; the ratio of people and events that positively or adversely impact us is deeply entwined with systems of power that positively or adversely impact us too.
Our trauma lenses need to be informed by a political understanding of privilege and power: focusing on individual and childhood events in the absence of wider contextualisation, can seriously harm (and gaslight) those whose present reality is subject to the traumas of systemic oppression. It is my hope that inner child healing will help cultivate the resiliences we need to face the inequities of the present. It does not stop them taking place, but through inner child healing we might become more resourced to bring our whole adult selves to whatever moves us in the present.
But back to the individual psyche: neuroscience describes what my dreams already knew, that parts of my being were deeply disconnected and frozen in a survival mode, catalysed by the loss of my mother (albeit temporarily). The imprint of family events not spoken of expressed themselves through my body as emotional flashbacks and survival responses later in life. Survival responses remember are ways we survived in the past (and to be respected as such), that can become maladaptive and compromise our relationship with present reality.
My survival responses included spells of substance abuse in my teens and early twenties: the numbing effects of alcohol and altered states of drugs perhaps replicating numbing and dissociation in childhood. A year of travel that morphed into a perilous street living and risk taking, reflected a subliminally expressed infant experience of abandonment. During this time I recall staring at a rag blowing down a cold street as Christmas shoppers moved around me: sitting on the pavement in the midst of families and fairy and lights, I felt as nonexistent as the dirty rag before me.
Tying this back to early survival responses: the Still Face Experiments below highlight the distress an infant can feel with only 2 minutes of a non responsive care-giver, it’s easy to see how a month long absence could precipitate a wordless pervasive sense of existential crisis. Of the survival responses listed above, this phase of my life has the flavour of a freeze and submit combination: where giving up and turning towards death becomes the least painful option.
Taking heed of what lay below the surface of these survival responses was crucial to overcoming them and the healing that was to follow. I would also like to touch briefly here on the theme of post-traumatic growth: its possible for our survival responses to transform from traps we fall into, to treasures that resource our lives. Intellect, creativity, resilience and courage have all emerged as the gifts of transforming these wounds – more on that in another article.
For further reading on trauma and compartmentalisation, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors by Janina Fisher is a dense but highly informative read. A shorter introduction to this particular trauma healing model – along with an embodied practice – will underpin the upcoming workshop Healing Your Inner Child – the touch you needed to receive.
Healing Your Inner Child: Words You Needed to Hear and Movements You Needed to Make
As well as touch, infants relate through movements and sound reflecting their right brain dominance. They need caregivers who are able to enter into their right brain dominant worlds, at the same time as having developed all the higher functioning needed to keep the child safe.
This is illustrated vividly in videos of the Still Face Experiments led by Dr. Edward Tronick: in just a few short moments a happy child becomes distressed, when the caregiver stops responding to the child’s non verbal cues.
If you watch the videos (the series includes Still Face With Dads) you might want to pause them at times, to notice what is arising within you. A trigger warning – just seeing them might stir implicit memories from your past – memories that reside predominantly in your right brain hemisphere as described in the last section.
IWatching this video I imagine what it might have been like for me as a child when my Mom went to bed for a month. When she appears in my dreams she is often a bright and loving presence just as I recall her in life. However what I call “the step mother” version of her sometimes appears – one that is cold and removed and very much like the non responsive mother in the Still Face experiment.
In one ‘stepmother’ dream we argue about the needs of two toddlers travelling with us in a car. She tells me to put their shoes on but in attending to this superficial and unwanted (by the child) need, their survival is compromised by the removal of a seatbelt. I wonder what the dream says about the peril I felt when my my Mom was no longer able to provide foundational care through her own illness.
I notice however that the child in the dream is ok, indicating wordlessly with a smile that shoes are not necessary. Later in life I discover how important grounding is for healing: how bare-feet on soil can remedy many things and I take my shoes off as often as possible. In another dream this happens:
I found myself in a swimming pool with my lovely Mom Maggie (she died when I was 26). We were doing a partnered swimming dance in the water, taking turns to lead and to follow, swinging one another around giggling, getting dizzy. We laughed each time we strayed too near the deep end, dancing on our tippy toes our long swan necks stretching.
Reading this reminds me how healing often expresses through my body in the form of unfurling movements: undoing taught constricting bands of trauma that can remain primed against threat many years after threat has passed. Because not only do our bodies keep score of stressful and traumatic events – they offer us routes towards healing too. Through being curious about our breath, movement and sound we can find the embodied expressions that support our healing; this will be the topic of later workshops and articles.
Healing Your Inner Child: Next Steps
I hope you have enjoyed this article about inner child healing, I value your comments and feedback. One practice or piece of theory is unlikely to offer all we need, but I hope this piece might land within the jigsaw of your complete healing picture alongside whatever else sustains you. The series of Zoom workshops below will form an introduction to True Self Systems – Trauma Sensitive Breathwork, each session building on the last to provide a graduated introduction:
- Healing your inner child – the touch you needed to receive
- Healing your inner child – learning to breathe again*
- Healing your inner child – the words you needed to hear
- Healing your inner child – the movements you needed to make
* Working with the breath begins on session two.
Thanks for reading,