A Sherpa Helping Us Scale Mountains of Loss and Fear

The Impact of Sebern Fisher’s Work

*originally appeared in ACEs Connection

“You can recover from all that happened to you.”

That was the dose of hope I received from Sebern Fisher during a short telephone interview. She is the author of Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma: Calming the Fear-Driven Brain.

Her book is excellent even if you never plan on using neurofeedback. She helps explain why and how developmental trauma devastates and how it is different than single-incident trauma or traditional post-traumatic stress.

Honestly – if you read her work only to understand the pervasive and tortuous impact of ambient fear – it’s worth your time and money.

Ambient fear ravages a body, brain, and life the way flu can take over the best intentions to work or work out. Whether it’s a low grade fever of fear or a spiked fever cooking the brain or some fluctuation between the two – fear consumes, exhausts and strains the body. SHE GETS IT!

SHE GETS IT! SHE GETS IT! She describes how it feels clinically and understandably in a way few have.

Of her own experience with a “hyper-startle response that I had lived with for most of my life”, she writes, “I’d been aware that I would send a stalking horse out before me to deal with new social encounters, but this insight had done nothing to diminish its presence or the innate sense of its necessity”. She isn’t talking only about social anxiety.

“Fear not only grabs the mind, it overtakes the brain. I knew that I dealt with chronic fear, but I thought about it exclusively as my mind’s reaction to my history.”

Me too!

Me too!

Me too!

Not all therapists or trauma experts understand the neurobiology of toxic stress or how to work with those who sit in the passenger seat with a scaredy-cat brain at the wheel. Fisher explains how neglect and poor family attachments always co-exist with traumatic abuse. Indeed, it’s the cumulative impact of that chaos stew that makes healing so difficult, complex and necessary.

Fisher explains how neglect and poor family attachments always co-exist with traumatic abuse. Indeed, it’s the cumulative impact of that chaos stew that makes healing so difficult, complex and necessary.

“The unbonded, motherless child lives in the CNS (central nervous system) of a prey animal, with predators all around her, both real and imagined, and always anticipated. Empathy cannot develop, much less flower, in a being terrified of its own imminent extinction.”

When she says “motherless” she is talking about the impact of being unmothered, which can happen even when the mother is alive.

In fact, in cases of domestic violence, the child may even be worrying about the mother’s survival – which is also not optimal for a child’s brain development.

“Unrelenting ambient fear makes empathy impossible. It is like asking a person who is being mugged to feel kindred feelings for the attacker while being attacked,” she writes.

The traditional model of trauma has been that of an incident, event or specific time period that has a beginning and an end. Lots of trauma treatments focus on getting a person back to who and how they were prior to the trauma. That model doesn’t work with developmental trauma from ACEs when toxic stress is an environment, not an event.

A child doesn’t age out of toxic stress or challenging or complicated family relationships simply by reaching 18.A child who grew up with developmental trauma becomes an adult living with the impact of that. That adult is still related to the people responsible for the child’s abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction and there may be continued toxic stress, strained attachments or grief from the loss of relationships that aren’t stable or healthy or possible.

This isn’t about blame; it is about understanding why so many of us have a lot of triggers in the present that never get put in the past and that help keep the fear-driven brain fearful in the present. Sometimes, the toxic stress continues, in the present. We react to the world with the self we are formed during developmental trauma and that self is a lot more reactive than it would have been if we grew up without ACEs.

It’s not that we keep hitting the same play button on a movie because we love to revisit pain. We go back to old movie scenes because those film images were shot on our skin and into our cells as we were growing up and forming.

No matter how resilient and recovered a person is, the constant triggering on a regular or semi-regular basis wears one down. It’s not voluntary.

Developmental trauma rarely happens to one person in a family. Our relatives are often doing battle with their own triggers, conflicts, divided loyalties, symptoms or issues acknowledged or denied. Though we may feel like or be treated as one cracked egg in an otherwise intact carton, research shows, that’s rarely how intergenerational trauma works.

Families, where developmental trauma occurs, are often a crockpot of competing ambient fears stewing, marinating and cooking. Fisher gets the complexity of this particular form of trauma in a way few others have.

“It is difficult to imagine that a child whose biological mother is present, attuned and attentive, would be subjected to the physical, sexual or emotional assaults that can, and usually do, lead to a diagnosis of PTSD, Fisher writes.

As a feminist, my felt sense of rage at my own mother and my heroin-like addiction for a form of soothing that could never be provided was totally at odds with my politics – and undeniable.

I was confused because intellectually I knew my mother was a teenager when she had kids and had her own abuse history and partners. She, too, was a victim. But to the child in me, she was also a perpetrator of neglect.

My brain can and does feel for the young girl and mother she was who has so much responsibility and so little help, so much chaos, and her own trauma. I believe she wanted the absolute best for her children. I loved her and still love her. She loved me and still loves me. I also know that I was not well-tended.

“The good-enough mother naturally protects her child. When traumatic events occur that are beyond her control, she validates them and helps her child recover from them. This can mean the difference between experiencing a traumatic event and becoming traumatized.”

Empathy afterwards can make a difference or THE difference, but it’s often lacking for those traumatized by those we trust. Fisher writes about that as it is experienced by a child during development.

This absence of good in childhood is more difficult to recover from than the presence of bad. It’s hard to recover from a void, which is a unique type of injury.

I remember when I read the book, I Can’t Get Over It by Aphrodite T. Matsakis during a time when all traumas were presumed to be quite similar. I remember thinking there’s no “it” to get over since it was an entire childhood not incidents or events. Even now, brilliant trauma advocates constantly speak about life before and after trauma as though we all had this line in time and space and we all know a time, pre-trauma, filled with safety and wholeness.

For some, trauma is baked into our bone marrow and skin. Our entire inner and outer lives were shaped in and around abuse and neglect – for years if not for decades. The problem is that there is no pre-trauma self but only a self via trauma.

Many of us are building a healthy self – often from scratch as adults. And sometimes as adults with children.

We are trying to learn the opposite of what we lived.

We are trying to learn what others learn when there is good attachment, bonding, and relationships.

This might be the work of an entire life.

Because of ACEs we know it’s important work. What we do and learn not only helps us, in our own lives, but it helps us parent so our kids will have less to heal from.

I don’t know Fishers personal story, but I can feel that she understands this journey and for that, I am grateful to and interested in her work. She is a true pioneer and advocate, a Sherpa for other survivors.

She has taken on the mountain the human brain and helped us scale it and understand the mountain of fear that resides within for those of us with developmental trauma. She doesn’t talk about the brain in the disease model way that makes many feel doomed, diseased and labeled. She talks about it more like a computer operating system that can be helped to operate better, and not only by pushing heavy-duty medications.

She insists that there are ways to ease fear and do more than white-knuckle a life, ways to support the brain’s health that can be done for almost everyone, no matter the age or issue.

She seems to know the landscape and hazards as few others do, which can help the rest of us be braver on our climbs. Plus, she’s done neurofeedback herself so she can speak as patient and practitioner.

All of us who follow her are indebted to her work, her compassion, and her wisdom.

I’ll be sharing more quotes about developmental trauma, the brain, and neurofeedback in another post later this week.

If you want to learn more about Fisher’s work now, check out the blog of Kathy Brous. She shares in-depth written about a range of healing modalities and details how they are especially helpful for healing attachment issues. It’s a fantastic resource.

Some of this interview and writing first appeared on the Heal Write Now blog.

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