What Happened to You? – rather than What’s Wrong with You?

What Happened to You? – rather than What’s Wrong with You?

A client referred me to What Happened to You? – Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry, last Wednesday; I got the book from the library Friday, read it straight through Saturday and Sunday, and am now recommending it to clients, colleagues, and readers as fast as I can; incorporating it into the five trainings remaining in my schedule before retirement [see below] as fast as I can. 

What Happened to You?  Is so open-hearted and down-to-earth; presented as a conversation between two experts in the root causes and steady healing of trauma, with genuine hope based in the neuroplasticity of the brain and the power of safe, trustworthy relationships to heal.

Oprah interviewed hundreds of trauma survivors in her 25 years broadcasting the Oprah Winfrey Show. Dr. Perry was a neuroscientist before he became a child psychiatrist, applying what we knew about the brain to brain development in stressed and resilient children. Working together for the last thirty years, including Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Oprah and Dr. Perry have shifted the paradigm of helping trauma survivors (anyone!) move from stress to resilience from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” – and how did what happened impact the development of your brain’s capacities to self-regulate, relate to others, and cope with all the troubles and tragedies you’ll meet in life.

Lots of accurate and accessible neuroscience presented through the stories of Oprah’s interviewees (and her own journey healing from abuse, well-known because of her honesty in her public presentations) and Dr. Perry’s brilliantly creative ways of working with his patients “from the bottom up”, the same way the brain develops and recovers.

Back in the day, when I was this excited about a new book, I would write a 12-15 page newsletter with reflections, poetry and quotes to inspire, stories to learn from, exercises to practice, and further resources. 

Sigh. Here’s a more streamlined version.



Dr. Perry outlines clearly how the lower brain processes all of signals about safety/danger from the outside environment and internal interoception far faster than the higher brain can sort out what this signal might mean. And how traumatizing experiences get encoded in the lower brain’s implicit memory, shaping our behaviors forevermore, often without our conscious awareness.

So the very first step in reacting to and recovering from any trigger, from any stressful event, is to regulate the nervous system, to bring it back into balance so the higher brain can come back on line and figure out what’s the wisest thing to do to be safe. This regulation happens most quickly, most effectively, when we can connect with safe other people who can regulate us. (What develops resilience in the first place as we’re growing up.) So, Dr. Perry’s neurosequential treatment for the recovery of any traumatizing moment or trauma history is…Regulate (lower brain) Relate (connection) Reason (higher brain). 


When growing children and their developing brains are supported and encouraged to take risks and have a safe, comforting, reassuring haven to return to when the world goes oops, the brain learns to meet adversity as a challenge and the brain begins to develop neural patterns that respond resiliently to stress. If growing children and their developing brains are neglected or punished for whatever happens (there is NOT something wrong with the child but with the world) then the brain’s patterns get fixed in a stress response mode, which can continue for a lifetime.

And it’s safe, nourishing, respectful and resonant relationships that provides the healing forever after. Dr. Perry emphasizes the importance of community and nature over traditional therapy. The brain creates its new patterns in 5-10 second bursts, so the constancy and repetitiveness of connection in family/community is what is most productive of healing by creating many, many new experiences of safety that create the resilient rather than stress responses in the brain.


Belonging and being loved are core to the human experience. We are a social species; we are meant to be in community – emotionally, socially, and physically interconnected with others. So much of the fundamental organization and functioning of the human brain is intended to help us create, maintain, and manage social interactions. We are relational creatures.

The history of your relational health – your connectedness to family, community, and culture – is more predictive of your mental health than your history of adversity. Connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity. – What Happened to You?

Communication, after all, is about getting some idea, concept, or story from your cortex to another person’s cortex. From the smart part of your brain to the smart part of their brain. The problem is we don’t communicate directly from cortex to cortex. We have to go through the lower parts of the brain. All the rational thoughts from our cortex have to get through the emotional filters of the lower brain. Our facial expression, tone of voice, and words are turned into neural activity by the other person’s senses, and then the sequential process of matching, interpreting, and passing up to their cortex takes place. …If someone is dysregulated, nothing you say will really got to their cortex, and nothing already in their cortex will be easy for them to access. Regulation is the key to creating a safe connection. And being connected is the most efficient way to get information up to the cortex. A tutor, a coach, a mentor, a therapist – all depend on the relationship to be the superhighway to the cortex.  – What Happened to You?


Dr. Perry tells the story of working with Sam. At 14, Sam had been in a residential treatment center for three years (removed from a violent home), doing fairly well, until a new teacher came to the school. Within the first week, Sam had three major outbursts in the classroom, puzzling to the teacher and staff, inexplicable and shaming for Sam. 

When Dr. Perry met with Sam and his father on a supervised visitation, Dr. Perry found himself drifting into a reverie about his own father while Sam and his dad played checkers. Dr. Perry remembered camping trips with his dad, getting up at 5am to go to the lake, his dad’s red-flannel shirt, the special scents of cigar, sweat, and Old Spice. Warm memories of being safe and loved.

When he returned his attention to Sam’s father, the scent of Old Spice lingered in the room. Curious, Dr. Perry moved closer to talk to Sam’s father, smelled the alcohol on his breath, and the Old Spice. On a hunch, later that day he asked the teacher what brand of deodorant he used. Old Spice.

Dr. Perry drew a simple diagram of the brain, explaining how Sam’s memories of his violent father may have included a memory of the scent of Old Spice. Dr. Perry drew a similar diagram with a similar explanation for Sam.  The teacher agreed to change his deodorant to a scentless one. Sam agreed to try again. Over the year, in fact, they developed a strong relationship and Sam became a model student in the classroom.

Dr. Perry shares many of these stories of how we can re-wire behavior from the bottom up when we can identify old memories associated with trauma, make them conscious (regulate-relate-reason) and make new choices. 


Linda’s upcoming trainings that include the impact of early relationships on developing the brain’s innate capacities for resilience.

May 20-22 online Resilience: The Neuroscience of Coping with Disappointment, Difficulty, even Disaster for Professional Counseling and Psychotherapy Seminars of Ireland

May 27 online Resilience and the Therapist as an Attachment Figure: How we can help our clients recover their resilience and inner well-being through conscious, compassionate connection, sponsored by NScience, London.

June 3-5 in-person The Resilience Mindset for Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stockbridge, MA

June 10 online Cultivating a Resilience Mindset: Transforming Any Adversity into Learning and Growth, sponsored by Ontario (Canada) Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. 

June 27-July 1 in-person The Resilience Mindset for Cape Cod Institute, Cape Cod, MA

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