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“What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” Reviewed by Nelson Appell

I wanted to read “What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” after listening to Brene Brown interview the authors on her Spoitfy podcast. I recommend listening to the interview, and I equally recommend reading their book. “What Happened to You” is an important summation of the current research into how early childhood experiences (good and bad) influence people for the rest of their lives.

Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry co-authored this book. Oprah needs no introduction. Dr. Perry is a child psychologist and neuroscientist with a long career studying and working with traumatized people. Oprah uses her experience as an interviewer to give space to Dr. Perry to present the science and his informed views on childhood development.

Dr. Perry covers so much ground here. He talks about the importance of well-regulated adults helping distressed infants learn to self-regulate—and what happens when the caring adults are themseles overwhelmed, undersupported and dysregulated. The developing brain of the infant will adapt different behaviours to manage how they are being treated—with positive and negative effects.

In a nutshell, predictable patterns of stress lead to tolerance and resilience. Unpredictable patterns of stress lead to a vulnerability to stress, and a higher baseline of stress. And people with a higher baseline of stress are more likely to abuse drugs, food and alcohol. They are also more likely to engage in unhealthy and unhappy relationships, if they are even able to form them.

It’s a fascinating conversation, filled with helpful charts, that makes its case over 10 chapters. They cover PTSD, disassocation, the tree of regulation, ACE scores, nurture vs. nature and the importance of therapy following the sequences of engagement, among other things.

Dr. Perry occasionally steps back from conventional wisdom for a sharp critique. He notes the current “trauma-informed” trends are not always positive, and sometimes dilute the hard, complicated work of managing trauma. Still, he says, all these efforts are hopefully working various systems toward an improving environment that can recognize and help traumatized individuals.

Is this book on early childhood trauma helpful and hopeful? The answer is yes. It’s never to late to heal, they say. The book moves from the lifelong challenges of abuse and neglect to what recovery looks like with chapters on healing and post-traumatic wisdom.

I’ll let the author share the last words, from their introductions. Oprah writes that understanding how the brain reacts to experiences is “the key to reshaping our very lives.” Dr. Perry hopes that this book will help readers “gain insights to help us all live better, more fulfilling lives.”

Strongly recommended for anyone interested in psychology, or anyone who wonders how the events in their own life have affected them.

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