+INFANT ABUSE THROUGH ATTACHMENT TRAUMA: PART ONE

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I am working with information found in Dr. Allan N. Schore’s 2003 book published by W.W. Norton & Co., pages 252-255 —  Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self

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+INFANT ABUSE THROUGH ATTACHMENT TRAUMA:  PART ONE

It is a mother’s job (or a replacement early primary caregiver who can never replace the mother completely) to care if her infant is upset or not.  She is supposed to help her infant return to a state of peaceful calm if it is upset.  In neuroscientific attachment lingo a mother is supposed to “attune” to her upset infant and help it by “repairing” a “rupture” created when something too intensely troubling happens to her baby.  A mother is most certainly NOT supposed to be the cause of her infant’s “rupture.”  She is not supposed to traumatize/abuse or neglect her baby. 

Severely negative emotional states hurt how a baby develops.  The right limbic brain region grows very fast during the first year of life.  Repeated patterns of traumatic interactions between a baby and its mother (or other primary caregiver) create intense biochemical reactions in the baby that have great power to damage infant nervous system and especially right brain development.

Neuroscientists know that every time trauma causes an “intensely dysregulated” state in an infant, potential harm is done.  When the mother does not respond to her infant appropriately to calm it down, is the cause of the infant’s distress, and when these patterns continue over time, this “massive misattunement” between infant and caregiver cause biochemical changes in the infant’s body and brain that begin to accumulate and do not diminish their harmful impact on the baby’s brain and nervous system development. 

How can a baby defend itself against the massive over-stimulation caused by traumatic interactions with its caregiver?  Much of its defense must occur on the level of chemicals that are designed to internally take care of the infant’s body.  As trauma continue to happen over time both the overstimulation and the biochemical changes to the developing right brain they create become embedded in the rapidly developing brain, especially in the right hemisphere.  Any defenses a baby’s little body can use to survive these traumas become a part of the right brain, as well.  In addition, as Dr. Allan Schore states, these effects which include the defenses are also built into “the core structure of the evolving personality.” (p. 252)

Well, I’m not a scientist but this sounds like a whole lot of “Uh-Oh!” to me.  Because I have a personal history of being the recipient of 18 years of terrible abuse from the time I was born at the hands of my psychotic Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) mother, I want to understand what Schore means when he mentions “core structures” and “personality” being changed through early traumatic attachment interactions with primary caregivers especially a mother.  I know my mother acted “fine” in public.  I know she was fully capable of acting the opposite when nobody was around to see or to hear what she did to me.  I have no reason to believe that the same kind of overwhelming chronic kind of overstimulation from trauma didn’t happen to my mother when she was a baby.  The same kind of biochemical distress reactions that Schore describes probably began to negatively impact Mother’s personality, brain and nervous system development from the time she was a very small baby (as I describe in my upcoming book, Story Without Words).

That trauma changes do impact the early rapid forming right brain in the “core structure of the evolving personality” in extremely damaging ways is exactly what I need to know in order to begin to make sense out of what harmed my mother so much she could end up doing what she did to me.  Why would I want to begin my search for understanding of my mother’s mental illness anywhere else than at the very beginning?

In a “good enough” or “best possible” early caregiver-infant environment, what most could consider as a “typical” environment, I imagine that an infant’s developmental trajectory would head off in its best possible direction.  Because the stages of development build upon what has already been built first, one good change could follow another.  We can call a traumatic infant-caregiver environment “atypical.”  One harm-triggered developmental change would then change the trajectory of further development in a trauma-related direction.

While most experts claim that such changes due to trauma survival are diversions from an “adaptive course,” I disagree with the assumptions contained in that term.  While these changes might be maladaptive to continued survival in a benign, benevolent world, if they are necessary to continued survival in a malevolent world I see them as bordering on miraculous.  That these adaptations to trauma do cause difficulties themselves cannot diminish the power they can have to keep a baby alive in a malevolent world.  The traumatized infant’s body has no other choice.

Schore refers to trauma-triggered developmental changes as being “deflections of normal structural development.”  (p. 252) How could they not be, I would ask?  An infant immersed in the horrors of a traumatic early world is not trying to stay alive and grow its body and brain in anything like a normal environment.  Trauma changes are normal in its world.

Yet Schore points out that it is exactly during its earliest stages of rapid brain growth that an infant is “maximally vulnerable” to any kind of stress at all, or to what Schore calls “nonoptimal environmental events.”  (p. 252)   I interpret this to mean that being an infant who MUST rapidly grow a brain means that at this stage of our life we are at highest risk for the greatest harm from even minimal traumas – let alone from massive ones.  During these critical periods of brain growth we are extremely sensitive to our environment. 

What we experience shapes the way the synapses in our brain behave as our growing brain is shaped, and stress-filled early environments are “growth-inhibiting” when they “negatively influence the critical period organization of limbic cortical and subcortical connections that mediate homestatic self-regulatory and attachment systems.”  (Schore, p. 252)  Critical periods of growth happen once.  The changes created during these periods are permanent.  These are not minor developmental milestones that Schore is describing as he states that caregiver-infant trauma “leads to a regulatory failure” that impairs the homeostasis (balance) of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), disturbs function of the limbic system, and creates dysfunction in the hypothalamus portion and in the reticular formation of the brain.

(One of the most important functions of the hypothalamus, which has several functions, is to link the nervous system to the endocrine (hormone) system via the pituitary gland.  I find it very interesting that this brain region is also connected to important aspects of parenting and attachment behaviors.  I would wonder how the damage that Schore is describing from infant abuse trauma to this portion of the brain could not help but end up impacting parenting and attachment behaviors in infant trauma survivors.

The reticular formation, a region of the brainstem, is one of the oldest portions of the brain.  It is involved in multiple important tasks, including the filtering of incoming stimuli to discriminate between what are irrelevant background stimuli and what stimuli is relevant.  I wonder if early trauma changes to this brain region can show up in symptoms that are connected to adult anxiety and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  This area of the brain is also involved in motor control and body movements, cardiovascular control, pain modulation, and sleep-wake cycles.)

Schore also states that “transcriptional regulation of gene expression” (p. 252) in the growing infant brain is modulated by intense stress.  Distressful infant-caregiver interactions that create hyperarousal (heightened arousal due to stress) cause the release of powerful chemicals in the infant’s brain designed to regulate arousal.  These chemicals can damage sensitive brain areas in the baby.

An abused infant’s right brain development is also significantly altered by the release of major stress-regulating neurochemicals that influence energy available to vital organs in the body and help contain or stop activation of the sympathetic (“GO!”) branch of the ANS.  These Big Gun stress hormones are directly regulated by the kinds of interactions an infant has with its mother and other early primary caregivers – or severely dysregulated when these interactions are abusive and traumatic. 

Too much for too long for too often of these Big Gun stress hormones directly harms infant brain and nervous system development during the most critical periods of growth.  It is up to an infant’s caregiver to “repair” over stimulation that happens to an infant (this can also happen through too much excitement due to play), thus reestablishing homeostasis – or what I call a balanced state of peaceful calm, or equilibrium.  When this does not happen – and often an abusive adult is likely to escalate the infant’s distress rather than down-regulate the infant’s stressful state – the prolonging of the infant’s stress response and the physiological dysequilibrium it creates in the infant’s body and brain begin to cause toxic harm. 

This harm is especially centered in the infant’s right limbic brain region exactly during its most important, most rapid stage of development.  Researchers are discovering that these kinds of interactions between high-powered, stress-related chemicals in the brain may be directly linked to the “primary etiological mechanism for the pathophysiology of neuropsychiatric disorders.”  (Schore, p. 252)  I have a strong suspicion that these patterns are exactly what sent my mother off in that direction from the time she was an infant.  (I also think about this information when I hear of adults who suddenly and supposedly “out-of-the-blue” are struck by some kind of mysterious “psychological” malady – that I believe originated in exactly these same kinds of traumatic earliest relationships.)

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