My last article discussed the physiological reaction of a young infant to external stress. As this infant grows and develops coordination and strength he will have new and different ways to meet the world. But if he had prolonged reactions to external stimuli, the early reaction pattern may stay buried in his system only to be triggered in the future; it creates a vulnerability and sets him up for perceiving the world in a certain way where trust is a big issue. Stress on a newborn can lead to particular psychological stressors later in life.
But let’s say everything went pretty well for the little guy those first few months and then things changed. Maybe mom had to go back to work and the baby’s safe haven is disrupted. This will be a full body experience for a small human being, it is the natural response to a situation he cannot understand cognitively. He will experience some level of shock that registers in a variety of ways in the system, the body, the mind and emotions.
Let’s imagine a 7 month old lying in his bed who wants or needs something; perhaps he is ready to get up. His way of letting us know is through crying. Usually he will get a response, but what happens when he doesn’t? He will cry louder… and louder, and harder. His body will be a fountainhead of frustration and eventually maybe even rage, WAHWAHWAH! And if he is not answered at some point he will begin to have other experiences, perhaps fear that escalates the crying even more WAHWAHWAHWAHWAH. Eventually he will become exhausted. After this experience is repeated a number of times the baby may give up and fall into a state of despair. This collapse can sometimes be seen in the muscle structure; a cave in the center of their chest or the down turn of their shoulders, forward extension of the neck and jaw. If the situation continues until the baby is standing on his feet the soft bone of the arches could collapse inward with the weight of the despair. If sometimes the baby’s cry is answered and other times not, he may develop a stronger will power before the despair takes over, in this situation the child may have more energy to sustain the demand for help.
Although it is unlikely this cycle would manifest in the body and the personality if the neglect happens rarely, this situation doesn’t have to occur all of the time in order for it to affect a baby’s experience of the world around him. It just really depends on his sense of constancy of his caregiver. Some parents may be very present and attentive when they are home and the baby feels safe and loved, others parents may be overwhelmed with tasks after work and have less ability to cater to the needs of the child.
One of the things that may become skewed in these situations is the child’s perception of his own wants and needs. Have you ever wondered why some people can take rejection pretty well and others go into such deep despair around it? It may come from experiences that occurred in this early time of life which then wires the entire system to interpret these outside behaviors in a way that is threatening to the child’s survival. We all know the deep pain of abandonment, but we have different reactions to it. Those who were affected during this early time where the baby is still dependent in a “symbiotic” way, approximately 7-18 months of age, tend to have much more trouble with this experience than others. They might stay longer in relationships where their needs aren’t met, unable to understand their own responsibility in helping themselves to get what they need by the choices they make in life.
This is a time of life when we are naturally reaching out to get our needs met. This reaching impetus is affected. When hurt in the earlier months of this developmental phase the person might retain an underlying neediness, coming across very clingy they develop traits of dependence or “co-dependence”, reactions from the early unmet needs. When stuck in this developmental stage one can retain a sense of entitlement which comes across to others as demanding even if it is disowned and portrayed in some hidden fashion. Many clients that I see feel great shame over their needs and wants. Or sometimes people develop a false sense of independence; “I will do it for myself”. In later life this person may have difficulty allowing others to see their needs which can be a barrier to intimacy or a type of loneliness.
Treatment requires a non-judgmental environment where we can explore the triggers and trace the reaction patterns in the body, the emotions, mind and will (our actions). Sometimes the works leads us to memories, other times just to a felt experience in the body and emotions. The memories or experiences are not as important as the understanding that this is a systemic block that creates the patterns of our life and our personality, but they are not who we really are. Eventually we can learn that these reactions are not true to the present situation now that we are an adult and have choices, there is no threat to our life from rejection anymore. We need to develop love and compassion for the young part of us that had difficult experiences and still struggles with the residue of them. Through the therapeutic process we can learn to love and respect ourselves and to give oneself what we need from the inside instead of clinging to an outside image that will save us. As we learn to do this we don’t fall as deeply into the trigger and the old feeling of “I do it myself” or the despair. Physiologically we rewire the system to retain its own charge and be able to direct it for our life. In this work we are gradually creating new neural networks in the brain that will give us choices that we didn’t have in the old reaction pattern, it leads to new experiences of safety and to a sense of wholeness and more trust and ease in life in general.
© Copyright 2010 by Aylee Welch, LICSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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