Try as I might, I just cannot think of any way that anyone exposed to severe infant-childhood trauma and abuse could NOT change in their body-brain development as a consequence. The more that is learned about how epigenetic forces creatively alter the pathways of our genetic manifestation the more we are learning about where, how and when these changes can – and do – occur.
I came across a statistic once that suggested that 50% of who we are is in our genes, and 50% of who we are can be changed by the influence of the early environment (and the continued one) that we are developing within. I think about that now, knowing how severe the infant-abuse was that I endured from birth (and for the next 18 years) and I find that this 50% ‘rule’ gives me a firm place to get my feet under me as I try to understand more and more about who and how I am in the world today.
I will always be 100% me, but as this blog’s commenter stated today, we all “mourn for the who-I-would-have-lived-to-be.”
How on earth could we possibly NOT mourn?
Yet for all the specific variations that exist in the trauma and abuse history of each survivor individually in terms of actual experiences we had, the range of possible changes that our body-brain was able to make in response to the trauma and abuse seem to be contained within increasingly defined (through new research) ways.
From my perspective as a severe early abuse survivor, I find this fact both exciting and extremely hopeful! The mystery of the unknown is fine if we want to contemplate with wonder the marvels of creation or follow a storyline in some mass market paperback. But the more mystery we can take out of severe traumatic infant-childhood survivorship, the better!
The 100% of me wants to know and understand how the 50% of me was changed in my development. I see the wordless image right now in my mind of a complex archeological dig in progress. Sooner or later all the pieces will be unveiled, one tiny brush sweep at a time, until the whole picture of the civilization of the past becomes revealed.
Severe infant-child trauma survivors are like members of a particular kind of ancient civilization – the civilization of the early attachment world we lived in from conception certainly through age 2 (where our self is clearly established) and on into and through about age 10 when our Theory of Mind is formed (using all the early formed body-brain circuitry established before age 2).
Severe infant-childhood trauma and abuse survivors had to grow their body-brain in a toxic environment. Nobody gave us one of those fancy suits to wear to protect us from the toxins. The only protection we had available to us was in the form of the internal changes we could make in our early development so that we could survive. The newest research is telling us more and more about what these changes were and how they continue to affect us. We were made in, by and for enduring within a malevolent world in very specific ways. What we most need to know about how to live a BETTER life while living with these changes will be found in this research that tells us how the ancient civilization of our toxic early environment actually affected us.
Because our right limbic emotional-social brain, as it connects into our body through our vagus nerve system, is directly formed through the kinds of attachment experiences we have with our earliest caregivers, it is to this region that we can pay special and care-full attention for clues about how to live a better life NOW.
Some of these clues can be found in Dr. Daniel J. Siegel ‘s book, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post.
Siegel has also written what I consider to be the most up-to-date accurate parenting book available: Parenting From the Inside Out. The author describes how our early caregiver attachment experiences formed our own attachment patterns, how those patters are likely to affect our relationships with our offspring, and what we can do to make positive changes.
Please consider purchasing and reading these two books, and also make a visit to Siegel’s Mindsight Institute website, whose theme “Inspire to Rewire” lets us know that no matter what the toxic conditions of our earliest ‘ancient civilization’ were that changed us in our infant-child development, we CAN take control over how we experience our life NOW.
I want to return to Siegel’s writing in The Developing Mind for awhile this morning because we do not exist in our Earth Suit without emotions.
We are born with emotion as we are born with a body. How our earliest caregivers interact with us forms our emotional brain.
If these early caregiver interactions are neglectful, traumatic and malevolent, our emotional right limbic brain will have to form itself in adaptation to these interactions – as will our immune system, our nervous system, and our body.
One way or the other our Earth Suit has to encompass ways to handle our emotion. The patterns we are given from our earliest caregivers’ interactions with us (most importantly our mother) will either help us to regulate our emotions smoothly, or will hinder us with emotional dysregulation.
Personally, I have to wonder if what is called ‘emotional dysregulation’ is even possible, because however our body-brain manages to stay alive incorporates SOME VERSION OF EMOTIONAL REGULATION or we would be dead.
However, the very extreme ways our body finds to adapt its regulation of overwhelming, toxic, traumatic and malevolent emotional experiences will not be in ideal ways for living a life of well-being in a benevolent world. Those ways of regulating our emotions built into our brain in our toxic ancient civilization of our early life do not match the conditions of a more benign, benevolent present day civilization.
Nor will a severe early trauma survivor’s body-brain’s operation match those of people who were not raised in toxic early environments.
I think we have to empower ourselves for positive change by understanding how completely adaptable our body-brain became in early trauma. That those adaptations appear in our present more benevolent life as ‘dysregulation’ has more to do with the relative safety and security of the world we find ourselves in NOW than it does with there being something WRONG within US!
True, looking at how someone can be so out-of-the-loop between emotion and higher cognitive functions that they can do something like the pilot did yesterday in Austin, blowing up his house with his wife and child inside and then flying himself to death into a building, obviously appears ‘dysfunctional’, dysregulated and WRONG! At the same time, if I wanted to understand how the adult got to that point, I would need to accomplish a version of an archeological dig to find out what the environmental influences on his body-brain development were from the time he was conceived through at least age 2 before I could begin to understand the pathway and pattern his life took from that point forward.
As humans, we seem tempted to couch our consideration of aberrant actions of others in terms of ‘good and evil’ and ‘right and wrong’. Probably because I was raised from birth and for the next 18 years by a mother who was obviously capable of beating me thousands of times, or abusing me consistently and chronically for all that time, by a woman who was not capable of knowing I was human and not the devil’s child, I have a unique position when I look at what being human actually means.
My mother was not fundamentally different from anyone else. Nor was pilot Mr. Joseph Stack. Because we are all members of the same species, we are always actually doing the same thing only in different ways: We are all, always, regulating our state of emotional arousal one way or the other.
My mother regulated her emotional arousal by torturing and abusing me. Mr. Stack regulated his state of emotional arousal by taking the actions that he did. Any consideration we might have that these people seem emotionally and mentally ‘dysregulated’ can only happen because we have the luxury of taking an outside perspective on them. What we might understand about being human, about how humans are supposed to regulate their emotional states of arousal, does not match their understanding.
So what are we really looking at when we turn our thinking toward another human being – no matter what they do? Turning to Siegel’s writing in The Developing Mind I find that he talks about emotion regulation in terms of basic components that operate within our species no matter who we are.
The problems happen when a developing body-brain-mind-self does not achieve what is most vital and needed for successful living in a benign, benevolent world. Siegel calls this desired “achievement” as having “a flexible and adaptive capacity for the regulation of emotional process.” (page 244)
Neither my mother nor Mr. Stack had this “flexible and adaptive capacity.” In all cases where trauma influences development – even if we are to believe that ONLY that the trauma is in a person’s genetics that manifested without malevolent early influences on development – it is always a resulting rigidity rather than flexibility coupled with an absence of the capacity to adapt appropriately to the conditions of a present benevolent environment that causes such terribly harmful actions and their consequences to happen.
The brain is, according to Siegel, SUPPOSED to develop
“…a rich circuitry that helps regulate its states of arousal. The nature of this process of emotion regulation may vary quite a lot from individual to individual and may be influenced both by constitutional features and by adaptations to experience….
“Attachment studies support the view that the pattern of communication with parents creates a cascade of adaptations that directly shape the development of the child’s nervous system [including the brain]….what parents do with their children makes a difference in the outcome of the children’s development…. It is important to realize that both temperament and attachment history contribute to the marked differences we see between individuals in their ability to regulate their emotions.” (pages 244-245)
I read Siegel’s words literally. Everyone has some version of an “ability to regulate their emotions.” Therefore in my thinking the concept of ‘dysregulation’ really does not apply. We are all, always, involved in processes of regulating our emotional arousal one way or the other. What we see are variations, or the “marked differences” between individuals in their capacity to regulate their emotional arousal flexibly and adaptively. It is the variety of ways, the variation in the ways that different individuals regulate their states of arousal through the “process of emotion regulation” that we can question, not the fact that this process is happening even in the most extremely harmful ways.
If we are going to make any use whatsoever of the concept of ‘emotional dysregulation’ we need to be clear that it only applies when there is a need for change in a person’s capacity to regulate their emotional arousal differently than the way they are doing it.
Once a human being’s body-brain circuitry has been built and established during their early trauma-full or trauma-free development, the patterns of operation for these circuits is automatic. Trauma-free development enables far more mind-full, free-will dominated, conscious choice to be included in the operation of the feedback and feedforward physiological information-activity loops working in a person’s body-brain. In this way although consciousness can be applied to override automatic processes, even the presence of the ability to BE conscious has entered the automatic range of options.
Having consciousness is an evolutionary advanced ability. Trauma-formed early body-brains have had this evolutionary advanced ability interfered with.
I see no way for change to occur in emotional arousal patterns when, where and as needed — no matter how destructive and hurtful they may be to self and others — without there being a corresponding match in increased conscious awareness. Even though from the outside we can look at my mother, or look at pilot Mr. Stack and consciously know that their patterns of regulating their emotional arousal were not flexible or adaptive within the conditions of the larger environment they lived in. Yet because it is doubtful that the evolutionary advanced ability to gain conscious control over their emotional arousal regulation was available to these individuals, it is for those on the outside to know they were ‘emotionally dysregulated’.
Learning about the concepts of emotional regulation and dysregulation has given me a new arena to look at my mother, at myself, and at others around me in a new light. As I begin to understand that everything humans do is about regulating emotional arousal, and that the patterns of regulation we use was built into us through the conditions within our earliest caregiving attachment environment, I can begin to understand more about the experience of being human.
I did not form a right emotional-social brain in a benign, benevolent world. Therefore my options for processing emotional regulation flexibly and adaptively were changed. I have to become increasingly conscious of the automatic patterns of emotional arousal regulation that my body-brain uses if I want to change them. It is helpful for me to know that these patterns I use are the same thing as my attachment patterns. They have to do with how I am attached within my own body-brain to my own self and to everyone and everything in the world I live in.
Automatic physiologically-based reactions are survival enhancing because they are FAST. Consciousness happened as an evolutionary advantage only because the environment allowed for enough TIME in enough situations that it was helpful. Trauma itself has its own time frame reality. SLOW is not what our survival-based fight/flight/freeze reactions are about. They have to be FAST, so they have to be automatic.
If we have a body-brain built in, by and for a malevolent world of trauma, and if we want to change how we regulate our emotional states of arousal, we have to realize that we will have to make use of the much SLOWER processes related to consciousness and choice. BUT, and this is important, as we consciously LEARN to do things differently, the plasticity of our body-brain will eventually move us closer to an automatic capacity to include our NEW learnings in our life.
I am paying attention to the process I am going through as I consciously learn to read music and play the piano keyboard. I have to be almost painfully conscious of every single step in this process. Yet my goal HERE is NOT to have to remain conscious of playing. My goal is to so learn how to read music and to play this instrument that the entire process can move into unconscious, automatic action.
I had a few continuous seconds last evening of what this experience will FEEL like once the conscious learning has moved to unconscious automatic action. I played five full lines of the music of this song I am learning automatically and without thought – and there it was!! The feeling of being one with the music. I WAS the music for those few seconds. It was an experience I imagine might be like BEING a ray of sunlight or BEING a breath of wind.
At the same time I am extremely aware that when I sit down and put my fingers on those keys, rest my eyes on the first note of the song, I am changing my thoughts and my emotions through my intention, through my focus, and through this process. No matter what I might be thinking when I sit down at that keyboard, no matter what I might be feeling, the moment I start the playing I can physiologically feel the switch happening in my body-brain.
Because I suffered extreme, ongoing, chronic trauma for my entire infant-childhood, I have no illusion that I will live long enough to be able to consciously change the body-brain patterns of emotional arousal regulation that happen mostly unconsciously and automatically for me. But at least now I know what I am up against and why. I live on full disability because of these trauma-changes that are built into me.
At the same time I remain extremely grateful that somehow I retained the capacity to increase my consciousness about how I am in my body-brain in the world. Knowing that people like my mother and like Mr. Stacker did not seem to gain or retain this ability for consciousness makes me feel humble and contributes to my gratitude for myself as being different from them. I do not take conscious awareness for granted.
Having degrees of this ability does not make me feel arrogantly superior to those without it. I too narrowly escaped the traumatic horror of my infant-childhood with my consciousness ability relatively intact not to have a compassionate appreciation for how cherished a gift conscious awareness of ourselves in the world really is.
Leaving infant-childhood bereft of this gift of the ability to have mindful, reflective, conscious awareness of how we regulate our emotional arousal dooms us to a life where the trauma that engulfed us in the beginning will surround us and follow us to our death.
Leaving infant-childhood bereft of this gift of the ability to have mindful, reflective, conscious awareness of how we regulate our emotional arousal dooms us to a life where the trauma that engulfed us in the beginning will surround us and follow us to our death. At the same time I can mourn for who I could have become if I had not been so traumatized as an infant-child, I can also celebrate that I did not lose the wonderful abilities that I DO have even though I survived such trauma.