This is the second part of a blog series about trauma, pattern matching, and how it influences our responses to domestic abuse. You can catch up on part one here.
In part one of this series, we looked at Elizabet's story, and saw how the perpetrator of her abuse tried to regain control and take revenge on her by manipulating her people at her new church and subtly persuading others that she was not a responsible mother. We talked about pattern matching: how our brains learn to recognise patterns in the things around us and instantly respond. If you haven't yet read part one, we'd recommend doing so before coming back to this blog.
In part two, we're going to think back to Elizabet's story. How might what we've learnt about our pattern matching brains make sense of her responses to what she's experiencing?
Here's where we'll get a bit technical - but bear with us, as it's all important!
As we've said, our brains are constantly making decisions about what to do with our experiences, and evidence suggests that those decisions are driven by our emotional responses. When we've experienced trauma, the connection to that memory gets stuck in the emotional part of our brain. This emotional centre remains on high alert, ready to jump in and protect us from any further threats. The difficulty is that because the emotional centre is the least evolved part of our brain, it can’t always tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat.
When we've experienced trauma, the connection to that memory gets stuck in the emotional part of our brain. This emotional centre remains on high alert, ready to jump in and protect us from any further threats.
There will have been many occasions over Elizabet’s time with the abuser when her brain identified or perceived what was happening to her has life threatening. This will have led to layers of emotions 'getting stuck' in the emotional centre of her brain, causing her to react to things in ways that are defensive and keep her safe, even when there may be no threat.
Let's look at an example. Elizabet’s children have been attending the Friday children’s club at the church and on one occasion the leaders have asked Elizabet to pick them up early. Due to Elizabet’s brain pattern matching the emotions connected with the trauma, she responds by asking ‘why, why just me?’ in a very loud voice. Her ex always challenged her on her ability to parent, and her brain has identified the change in pickup arrangements as another threat to this. To the church leaders, Elizabet has responded in an unreasonable way to a reasonable request. To Elizabet, she is trying to keep her connection to her children safe.
These kinds of responses have, for many generations, been pathologised and often people who display them are diagnosed with a condition or syndrome. In fact, their brain is simply responding to trauma. You might have thought to yourself at times, ‘this person is irrational and incapable of making decisions’, ‘their story doesn’t add up’, or ‘all the other professionals appear to be dubious of her claims’. But what happens if we understand Elizabet’s responses in light of what we know about trauma and the brain? Does it change the way we understand the situation? Will it change the way in which we respond to her?
To the church leaders, Elizabet has responded in an unreasonable way to a reasonable request. To Elizabet, she is trying to keep her connection to her children safe.
How you can help
Depending on your role, there might be occasions when you need to be involved in multidisciplinary team meetings, particularly if there are any safeguarding concerns. Whether in that kind of context, or less formal settings, it's vital that we're always there to advocate for individuals like Elizabet. Try to remember that what seems unreasonable to people on the outside might just be a trauma response.
There are some really great videos (see below) that might help you explain these ideas to a survivor, to help them understand their own responses. It’s also important that we encourage specific trauma therapy, which will help move things from that emotional centre of the brain, into long term memory; this will in turn prevent the emotional centre from making mistakes over real and perceived threats.
Read part three
Read the third and final blog in this series, where we'll explore how our own pattern matching impacts our ability to effectively support survivors of domestic abuse.Continue reading