Dr. Haley Peckham: Validating the impact of complex trauma without diagnosing disorder



8th Annual National BPD Conference 2018 in Brisbane: Research Resources Respect: Connection Building.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

This beautiful quote comes from the pen of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and shows Professor Dumbledore validating Harry’s experience. Consider the opposite, “It’s all in your head!” suggesting you’re making something up, claiming compassion and understanding that you have no legitimate entitlement to. One way to legitimise ‘what’s in your head’ is to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Diagnosis validates suffering and struggles and may bring relief and clarity but maybe also stigma and a sense of powerlessness. Neuroscience offers us another way. Mechanisms of neuroplasticity have evolved to help us adapt to the environment we encounter. We learn from what has happened to anticipate what will happen. This helps us to survive and reproduce in our environment. From the level of our DNA, to the changing rate at which we create new neurons, through to our neural pathways within and between the regions of our brains; experiences sculpt our brains. Neuroplastic mechanisms shape our brains for the precise environment we experience whether that environment is benevolent, benign, impoverished or abusive. Mechanisms that enhance our capacity to anticipate our environment are survival positive, but in traumatising environments the experiences we have shape our brains to anticipate further trauma. We become threat focused, anxious, aggressive, defensive, or withdrawn, which may serve our survival even as they cause us to suffer, but is this suffering illness per se? The suffering and struggle is real and, in our heads, but is an outcome of our functional neuroplastic mechanisms adapting to a harsh environment.

This presentation explores how we validate the profound and enduring impact of early experiences. Diagnosis of mental disorder is one way to validate psychological and emotional suffering but neuroplasticity, by describing how experiences shape brains, offers consumers a non-pathologising alternative which some may prefer.

Dr Haley Peckham
Haley has been curious about brain and mind since she could think. Whilst studying philosophy, Haley worked with children in out-of-home care and was intrigued and saddened to learn that these children have a high risk of developing mental health issues later. Wanting to understand how our lives shape our brains, Haley became a mental health nurse, began her own psychotherapy and studied neuroscience. Last year, Haley gained a PhD from Melbourne University on the topic of neuroplasticity: how experiences shape brains. She wants to share her understanding of the biology of complex trauma and the necessity for trauma-informed care.

Source: Youtube