Healing trauma through safe relationships
The conversation around trauma has opened up in recent years, offering the opportunity for us to gain a deeper understanding of the impact that traumatic stress has on both our bodies and our psyche. Nevertheless, this is a deeply complex topic and despite the increasing awareness, for many, living with trauma is no less challenging. However, understanding the role that safe relationships play in rewriting the script of interpersonal trauma can give us powerful insight and a roadmap for healing.
In this article, we’ll delve deeper into understanding interpersonal trauma, and then go on to explain the role that safe relationships can play in healing our bodies and minds so we can move beyond our trauma, improve our relationships, and experience greater insight, ease and wellbeing.
When we have been harmed in relationship
When we talk about ‘relationship’ we are talking about interpersonal interactions and we include all types, from intimate, familial, friendships and professional relationships. We can also extend this to the relationships we have with our teachers, classmates, people in our social circles and communities, policy & law makers, public servants and service providers such as doctors, lawyers and even our local barista. In our digitally connected, yet increasingly socially disconnected lives, even interactions we have through people in the media, including social media, are a type of parasocial relationship.
It’s crucial to understand for our own wellbeing and for the sense of responsibility we have to each other, that all of these interactions impact and influence us and have the ability to either cause harm or build connection, safety and trust.
Emotional safety and our self-concept
We humans like safety, and through our ingenuity, we have developed a way of living that manages risk and protects us from things such as predators, disease and other environmental threats. As such, in our modern world, many of us are lucky to not experience a lot of physical threat in our environment, but what we do seem to experience consistently, but at varying degrees of intensity, are threats to our emotional safety and self-concept.
Humans are social, sentient beings constantly observing and engaging with our surroundings. We are wired for love and connection, we want to feel valued and accepted, we want to experience safety and freedom, and we want to belong. Not having these core needs met causes stress.
We often think of stress as an acute, highly elevated state, but we are less attuned to the chronic states of stress we experience. Loneliness for instance can be both an acute and a chronic cause of stress and it comes from our core need for social connection not being met.
Furthermore, our interactions shape our self-perception and help us determine who we can trust and who poses a potential threat to our physical or emotional safety. Through these perceptions, our experience in relationship with others fundamentally shapes our beliefs about ourselves which we can think of as our self-concept. We can think of this concept of self as being related to our self-worth, self-esteem and identity.
Innately, we want to feel valuable and worthy of love & belonging. When our self-concept feels threatened we may ask ourselves:
“Am I loveable?”
“Am I worthy?”
“Am I enough”
“Is there something wrong with me”
If we have experienced interpersonal trauma, we can feel these threats to our sense of self acutely as our self-concept may be wounded on a very deep level. If these traumatic experiences happened in our earlier years when our young minds were busy forming an understanding of the world, we most likely have deeply internalised feelings of shame and defectiveness which will have caused us to form negative beliefs relating to our worthiness for safety, love, acceptance and belonging.
These wounds to our self-concept create a sensitivity. When something opens up those wounds and activates these core beliefs, the wound gets deeper and the belief gets stronger, and we can suffer tremendously. We don’t want to suffer, so we develop ways of protecting ourselves from these threats, and ways of coping with the pain. This is why survivors of trauma are highly vulnerable to developing addictions to cope with the high levels of pain and stress they experience day to day.
Much of the pain of being human is caused by our maladaptive systems of protection & coping methods as these strategies limit our capacity to experience healthy fulfilling connection and live life to our full potential.
Understanding interpersonal trauma
Trauma is caused by acute or chronic stress, however not all stress is traumatic. The well-accepted theory developed through the work of trauma experts such as Stephen Porges, Deb Dana, and Bessel van der Kolk is that if we experience a stressful event or situation and we cannot complete the stress cycle and return to a feeling of safety and social connection, our body registers that event as traumatic and adapts to protect us from further harm.
As opposed to the trauma we might experience from a car accident or natural disaster, interpersonal trauma happens when we are harmed in relationship with others. This can be direct or indirect and includes being violated in some way, experiencing high levels of stress from something like a divorce or legal dispute, but also from not having our fundamental emotional needs met, particularly in childhood.
Examples of interpersonal trauma could include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, or any other experience where our safety and well-being were threatened in a relationship with another person. Interpersonal trauma can be acute, such as through an act of physical violence, or chronic, such as ongoing emotional abuse or neglect within a family or intimate relationship.
Examples of what can cause trauma on an interpersonal level:
- Interpersonal acts of violence
- Sexual assault
- Domestic abuse
- Emotional and psychological abuse
- Experiencing instability and unmet needs due to having a parent with a mental health disorder
- Divorce and separation
- Racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice and oppression
- Being excluded or ostracized from a group
We do not necessarily need to be the direct victim of these interactions, witnessing harmful interactions can in some cases be just as traumatic.
Our earliest caregivers play a critical role in shaping our sense of safety, security and trust in the world. When these relationships are characterized by abuse, neglect or instability, it can lead to attachment trauma. This type of trauma can result in the formation of negative beliefs and coping strategies that can impact our subsequent relationships throughout our lives.
It can be challenging to develop a sense of safety and trust in relationships when our earliest attachment experiences have been characterised by harm, instability or neglect and as such, the impact of attachment trauma can be long-lasting and affects many areas of our lives.
Trauma creates unreal perceptions of threat
Our body has an unbuilt surveillance system, designed to protect us from dangers in our environment. Through the process of neuroception, we involuntarily scan situations and people to determine if they are safe or dangerous. As soon as we detect a signal that suggests we might be in danger, our body activates our stress response, which we can also think of as our ‘’survival mode” because it’s what activates our “fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn” response.
Trauma can make our “fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn” responses overactive and can cause us to perceive danger where there is none, or to perceive a potential threat to be much more dangerous than it really is. If an interaction with someone feels threatening to us, our bodies move us into survival mode where we involuntarily either mobilise to a fight, flight or fawn response, or immobilise to the freeze response. Our body chooses these responses for us which is why when we’re stressed or triggered, we’re less able to make conscious choices when it comes to our behaviour and interactions with others.
Additionally, in survival mode, the limbic system takes over, which is the part of our brain responsible for our survival instincts and emotional states. Interestingly, the stress hormones we produce also inhibit the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for regulating our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. When we lose access to the wiser, more evolved part of our brain, this impairment leaves us vulnerable to emotional reactivity, irrational thought patterns and impulsive behaviour.
The maladaptive ‘trigger’ response
Our bodies’ stress response is adaptive, meaning it responds to our environment. For those who have experienced trauma, based on our past experiences, we may read specific interactions with others as dangerous such as someone using a certain tone of voice, a particular facial expression, or certain types of body movements. Trauma can make us highly sensitive to these interactions and will activate our stress response accordingly. This is what we mean when we say we’re ‘triggered’. A trigger based on trauma is different from an adaptive stress response to a real threat in our environment as it’s skewed by our accumulated traumatic experiences.
Because of the nature of this automatic, involuntary response, and the reduced ability to regulate ourselves through the pre-frontal cortex, we become reactive rather than responsive. When our stress response is triggered in interactions with others, we may become defensive, we may attack or avoid, we may sacrifice our own needs to appease, or we might just shut down or feel numb. We use the term maladaptive because rather than being protective, these strategies or reactions mostly add to our stress in relationships.
Additionally, if we have experienced a lot of trauma and find ourselves in an environment that has a lot of stressors, we can find ourselves chronically in survival mode, inevitably accumulating more traumatic stress.
Research estimates that the underlying cause of as much as 90% of illness, disorder and disease is stress, which draws a crucial link between our body’s response to traumatic stress and the need for our health systems to adopt a trauma-informed model of care.
How safety helps us heal
Trauma experts claim that the key to working with trauma is experiencing safety. If our trauma happened in a relationship a powerful way to shift this is to re-write that script in a safe relationship with another person. Additionally, trauma survivors often feel disconnected and isolated so a safe relationship can provide a sense of connection and belonging, which helps us feel less alone in our journey.
A safe relationship is one where we feel comfortable expressing our thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement or rejection.
Additionally, a relationship with a safe person allows us to be messy because we trust they’ll meet us with compassion, no matter what weather system we’re in.
This can be particularly important for survivors of trauma because:
- we may have a difficult time trusting others
- we may struggle to regulate our thoughts, emotions and behaviours
- we may have formed unhelpful beliefs and coping strategies that have impacted our relationships in the past
Healing old wounds takes time and revisiting traumatic memories can be a very painful process. Trauma can make us feel broken and unlovable and we have likely put up walls to protect ourselves from further harm. Because of this, in relationship with others, survivors need patience, acceptance and understanding as they move through this journey.
While processing trauma is a largely internal process, because of our fundamental need to experience safe social connection, experiencing safety through a trusting & stable relationship is a vital aspect of processing traumatic experiences, and also allows us to slowly practice letting down the walls we’ve used to protect ourselves.
Co-regulation & limbic resonance
If we’ve experienced attachment trauma, we may not have had the attunement we needed in childhood to learn to self-regulate our emotions and behaviour. Working with trauma involves strengthening our ability to self-regulate and tune into what is happening in our body when our limbic system kicks into survival mode. However, when thinking about our relationships with others, understanding co-regulation and limbic resonance can help us understand the influence we have on each other.
The idea of limbic resonance describes the sharing of emotions between two or more people. It argues that our nervous systems are not self-contained, but rather attuned to people we share a close connection with.
Co-regulation can involve a range of responses, such as providing a warm and calming presence, using a soothing tone of voice, acknowledging someone’s distress, and modelling behaviours that can help regulate arousal. These actions can be incredibly helpful in promoting a sense of safety and connection in relationships.
Ideally, we would have experienced this in childhood with our primary caregivers, but if we didn’t, experiencing it in a safe relationship in adulthood can be healing. An example of this is the concept of limited reparenting in Schema Therapy which describes an approach used by a trained therapist to reparent the client’s wounded inner child. The therapist offers themselves as a secure attachment figure and aims to meet the key core needs that were not met in the client’s childhood through a safe, stable and compassionate therapeutic bond.
Traumatic experiences and unmet needs create wounds within us. Having a safe relationship can provide the connection, trust and co-regulation we need to explore the pain of our past and heal. Developing a safe relationship with a psychologist or counsellor can be a good place to start as the therapeutic bond you create, along with trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, help to identify and process the interpersonal trauma we have experienced in a safe container.
However, what we ultimately want to achieve is the ability to experience safety in relationships outside of the therapy room. Below we’ll unpack some of the key factors that contribute to feeling a sense of safety in a relationship so we can build insight and awareness that will enable us to form safer and more meaningful relationships. We’ll also explore what makes us feel unsafe so that we can better identify situations and people that will trigger us or cause us further harm.
Trust is the overarching principle of any safe and meaningful relationship as it fosters a sense of security and intimacy. If we have interpersonal trauma, we may find it difficult to trust and be vulnerable with others. A relationship with someone we trust can help us slowly let down our walls and defences. There are many factors that contribute to trust within a relationship but overall, nurturing trust requires consistency, honesty, transparency, integrity and feeling that our thoughts and feelings matter to each other.
If we’ve survived trauma, we may struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, or self-blame and we may have trouble leaning on others and accepting care. Having someone who can offer empathy and understanding can be incredibly healing, but even more than that, compassion not only sees our pain, but it wants to help. Feeling like we have someone who understands us, accepts us, and wants to be there for us gives us hope, helps us learn to trust in the goodness of others, and encourages us to be more compassionate towards ourselves.
Being present for someone means giving them your undivided attention, listening actively and being curious and fully engaged in the moment. Simply holding space for each other, without the need to fix or rescue, and instead just offering our care through deep presence and a willingness to offer our time and attention can be transformative.
The ability to listen deeply is also powerful. Often we don’t listen to hear, we listen to respond. This ‘turn-taking’ can cause us to miss what is actually being said, as our mind becomes distracted by thoughts of what this means for us. Noticing when we do this can help us be more present with each other.
Respect is incredibly important in any relationship as, ultimately, if we don’t feel respected, we don’t feel valued. Respecting someone also means acknowledging their feelings, experiences, and boundaries, and making a conscious effort to act in ways that won’t cause harm or distress.
When we accept and embrace each other’s differences we recognise each other as uniquely valuable individuals. We can have different opinions, beliefs, abilities and values, but we can still respect each other’s right to hold them. Respecting each other also allows us to learn from each other and broaden our perspectives.
Acceptance means recognizing and embracing someone for who they truly are, without trying to change or control them. When we accept each other, we create a safe and non-judgmental space to be vulnerable and authentic. Accepting others also means accepting ourselves, flaws and all, which can lead to greater self-love and self-compassion. It’s important to remember that acceptance does not mean condoning harmful behavior, but rather acknowledging and accepting the person as a whole and being willing to forgive and repair when a mistake is made.
Interpersonal trauma can have a profound impact on our sense of control, personal rights, and safety. It can make us doubt whether our boundaries will be respected or if we’re even deserving of having boundaries in the first place. This can lead to two extreme responses; either building walls that are impenetrable or having no boundaries at all, which can leave us vulnerable to further harm.
A relationship with a safe person should not make us feel violated, or feel that we will be punished, rejected or abandoned if we ‘make a fuss’. It should provide a space to be more vulnerable, tune into our needs, and practice setting boundaries without fear of negative consequences.
Consistency in relationships builds trust. When we are consistent in our actions and behaviours, it shows others that we are reliable, dependable, and that we value the relationship. Consistency builds a sense of predictability and stability, which allows us to feel safe and secure with each other.
On the other hand, inconsistency can lead to confusion, frustration, instability and mistrust in a relationship, which can reopen old wounds. For example, if our first attachment figure was inconsistent or unreliable, we may find it hard to believe that others will be stable and trustworthy. If we can experience consistency in relationships with others we can start to reframe those core beliefs.
If we have been wounded in our past relationships, close connection with others can feel the opposite of safe. It may take time for us to open up, and people who can be patient with us. When someone is patient with us, we feel safe, valued and accepted and we can learn to be more patient with ourselves.
Validation & Support
A safe relationship makes us feel seen, heard and supported. If someone makes us feel like our thoughts, feelings, and experiences are understood and respected, and they will be there for us when we need them, we feel safe.
Validation can take many forms, such as active listening, empathy, and acknowledging each other’s feelings and experiences. Emotional support might involve listening without judgment, offering a shoulder to cry on, or simply being there when we need someone to talk to. When we feel seen and heard and receive support from others, we feel valued and cared for, which in turn creates a sense of safety in the relationship.
Accountability in relationships involves taking responsibility and ownership over ourselves and our behaviours. Accountability creates a sense of trust because it makes us feel that our thoughts and feelings matter to each other more than the need to be right or to prove the other wrong. If we know we can rely on each other to be transparent, and forthcoming, and to take responsibility for ourselves when issues arise, we can actually strengthen our bond through times of conflict and distress.
Accountability may feel unsafe at first because it requires a level of vulnerability we may not feel comfortable with. Our interpersonal trauma may make us fearful of conflict, or we may have learned unhelpful ways of navigating conflict such as defensiveness, stonewalling or appeasing behaviours. Additionally, if feelings of shame and unworthiness are triggered we may blame ourselves for things that are not our fault. Being in a relationship with someone who can be accountable can teach us to break the cycle of self-blame and slowly let down our defences.
When we are in relationship with someone who has integrity, we feel safe.
When we act with integrity, we feel more at ease with ourselves.
Integrity is the foundation of safe relationships as trust cannot be cultivated and maintained without it. Integrity encompasses ethics morality and a sense of knowing what’s right and wrong. When we live with integrity we are committed to not acting in ways that will cause harm to others, and we consider other’s well-being, rather than being focused exclusively on our own self-interest.
We are interconnected social beings, therefore if our interactions cause suffering to others, we inevitably suffer through guilt, shame and a breakdown of trust in our relationships. Acting with integrity is not just about being a ‘good person’, if we want to live fulfilling meaningful lives free from the suffering we create for ourselves, we must take our responsibility to each other seriously.
If we have experienced trauma on an interpersonal level we may have been violated through abusive behaviours such as manipulation, deceit or betrayal, so may find it hard to trust in the integrity of others. Learning to regain trust in others is a vital step in healing ourselves in relationship with others.
Having integrity does not mean we never make a mistake, but if we act out of integrity we ensure we are accountable, transparent, willing to take steps to repair, and ultimately be willing to change. In close relationships, this level of ethical commitment, responsibility and care creates a safe and nurturing environment that allows a trusting bond to form, allowing us to be more vulnerable with each other.
What makes us feel unsafe?
Being harmed in relationships impacts our ability to trust others, and one of the most ultimate reason people feel unsafe in relationships is a lack of trust. Additionally, these wounds impact our self-esteem and self-worth. Trauma survivors often form a belief that they are not worthy of being treated well. This makes them vulnerable to attracting relationships with people who violate them or are not able or unwilling to meet their needs, contributing further to their feelings of shame, unworthiness and emotional deprivation.
If we had our core needs unmet in childhood and we have been violated in relationships, the thought of being vulnerable with others can feel very unsafe. This is not inherently bad, as not everybody deserves our vulnerability.
But to form the kind of connection we need to live fulfilling and meaningful lives, we have to feel safe to let down the walls we have built to protect ourselves. This is where being in relationship with safe people is transformational as they model behaviours that help us reframe our core beliefs and let down our defences.
Here are some examples of harmful interactions, alongside some safe alternatives:
In conclusion, trauma can have a profound impact on our lives. By understanding the role of safe relationships in healing trauma, we can begin to rewrite the script of our interpersonal trauma and move towards greater insight, ease, and well-being.
By finding safe people who meet us with compassion, we can learn to trust, co-regulate our emotions and behaviours, and improve our relationships. While healing from trauma may not be a linear or easy process, experiencing safety and connection in relationships is a powerful step towards healing and reclaiming our lives.
We conclude with this powerful statement from The Wisdom of Trauma:
Imagine a trauma-informed world.
Imagine your own family and community. Might the teachers act differently in your schools? How about the doctors seeking to help you heal? The judges responsible for deciding sentences? The policy makers who define our collective structures and the leaders we appoint to represent our voice?
We hold the vision of a world that breaks free of cycles of trauma and becomes more open and inclusive. It all starts with us, truly. It starts when we allow our wounds to teach us about listening, self-love and compassion and to remind us of the preciousness of life. Then truth opens our hearts and our innate wisdom begins to shine through our wounds.
– Dr. Gabor Mate
Psychologists delivering trauma-informed care
Our practice is dedicated to facilitating a safe container where you can explore your challenges and find your path to greater well-being.
We have an experienced and diverse team who focus on establishing a safe and compassionate therapeutic alliance and use evidence-based, trauma-informed therapeutic approaches. Treatment can be delivered in-person or via Telehealth.
Dr Nicholas Ryan
other articles that may interest you…
Understanding our unique context in the world can be beneficial in navigating the complexities of our society and the challenges we face. When thinking about our unique context in this world we can consider our family, cultural, economic, religious, and...
The world we live in is facing an unprecedented set of challenges. In the past few years, we’ve had to adapt to new ways of living and working, while also dealing with the emotional toll of isolation, loss, and uncertainty. Despite the many advances in...
In this article, we’ll talk about coping strategies used to manage stress and difficult situations. As humans responding to our environment, we are wired to adapt. However, our bodies and minds can also adapt in unhealthy ways as a means to cope with stress....
The path forward starts here...
It can take courage to seek support when you are in need. Our experienced team of psychologists in Melbourne are ready to provide the safe space that clients need to explore their challenges and work towards lasting and meaningful change in their lives.
We aim to gather information about your goals, your history and your current challenges so we can feel confident that we’ll match you with the right Melbourne Psychologist. This matching process is what sets us apart as we strive to support our clients and our psychologists to develop meaningful and successful relationships.
Connect with us
03 9052 4365
F 03 8513 6204
Level 4, 12 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000