Baby Elephant Beliefs, written by Shale Marks, LCSW CADC and Dr. Kimberly Dennis, MD

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Baby Elephant Beliefs

There’s an old adage about baby elephants. Circus trainers would tie a rope around a baby elephant’s leg and would attach it to a stake in the ground, so that the elephant wouldn’t run away.  When the elephant grew to be an adult and weighed 12,000 pounds, the same elephant tied to the identical stake in the ground, still believed it couldn’t move. The elephant could have easily pulled the stake out of the ground and set itself free, but it was held in place by a limiting belief system. Illusion. Most of what keeps “people stuck” in the cycle of addiction or “dis-ease” are old ideas, limiting belief systems about “the self and the world” which keep illusions alive. People are afraid to let go of those beliefs which for so long served to help them survive in a world that was actually or perceived to be very dangerous.

It’s the rule rather than the exception for those with early traumas to develop and to define themselves by their wounds – this forms the basis of identity. A healthy connection to community is never formed and the reality of one’s being alone and overwhelmed turns into a perpetuated belief that no one will ever be there to help and that even if they were, accepting help would be a sign of weakness. Many people with traumatic histories and insecure early attachments also slip into the belief that real change is not possible – that somehow, they are beyond repair. Too broken.

In the face of overwhelming physical or emotional instability in the environment, the most adaptive response for small children is often the freeze response. Kids learn to dissociate, to go inside and use whatever they have access to in order to self-soothe, survive, create the illusion of security. When there is healthy, consistent attachment to caregivers, neural connections in the frontal cortex of a developing brain are formed normally, especially the parts of the brain involved in executive functioning and compassion–a necessary ingredient in healthy interpersonal functioning. When secure attachments aren’t formed at a young age for any reason, normal development of the  frontal cortex will be impaired. When kids are intermittently or chronically in a state of danger, they are prone to developing heightened activation in certain areas of the limbic system. Increased activity in the amygdala, or fear gating center, can lead not only to ongoing hypervigilance (always looking for signs of danger) but also disrupts the development of memory for example, which can have serious effects on a trauma survivor’s sense of cohesiveness and identity.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy, based on cognitive behavioral principles, is one way to break the chains of old beliefs and a brain stuck in activated trauma patterns. PE uses imaginal exposure in a supportive process and guided by a skilled clinician, to revisit painful and traumatic memories, making them speakable. So often, traumatic memories are pushed down far inside, compartmentalized away, and for good reason! The brain does a wonderful job protecting people, and it also does a great job of healing if or when people are ready to access expert help. Another tool used in PE is in vivo exposure, which involves repeated confrontation with the situations that cause activation but which are not actually dangerous in the present. Working through the activation using newly developed coping skills and healthy attachment to support allows survivors to have corrective emotion experiences. These experiences over the course of therapy lead to deep and lasting change. PE does not necessarily rewrite history, but it can significantly reduce the charge that traumatic memories activate, leading to the capacity to write a new present and live in a different way–a manner of living characterized by intention, consciousness, empowerment and choice. After PE, the patient can begin to see the memories through the eyes of a whole adult, rather than fragmented and splintered-off parts of self from childhood.

The benefit of truly integrated and holistic care is that patients are treated first and foremost as whole persons, rather than a cluster of symptoms labeled as disease treated only with others lumped into the same box. Treating substance use disorder, eating disorders, mood disorders and trauma in an integrated way with a cohesive team is good medicine in and of itself for the fragmentation that results from trauma. Fragmented care cannot heal fragmented humans.

So, how do we let go of baby elephant beliefs? By noticing our patterns, naming them,  and sharing them with our fellow travelers – in allowing others to bear witness to our vulnerability, we find our strength. It is only when we become aware of our limiting beliefs, that we can make a decision to accept ourselves, and expand beyond the old with new actions, new beliefs and a new way of life.

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