Psychological Trauma in Infants

What is “Psychological Trauma”? Wikipedia seems to sum it up quite well;

“A traumatic event involves a single experience, or an enduring or repeating event, or events, which completely overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience.”

To some extent or other, an adult has the ability to integrate their ideas and emotions associated with a traumatic experience, but where an infant is concerned, they have yet to develop any coping skills. An infant relies totally upon their parents to do all their coping for them. Coping for and caring for an infant is primarily the mother’s job in most cases, so when an infant experiences an event which completely overwhelms it, the infant relies upon the mother to provide coping strategies.

What events would an infant experience as overwhelming? Well, just about any event would be overwhelming to an infant; an infant is born completely helpless and unable to look after its basic needs. A dirty nappy is overwhelming to an infant, hunger is overwhelming, and a loud noise may be overwhelming. Just being born and the stress of the birth process is overwhelming to an infant; for 9 months you learn your surroundings and you feel warm, safe and comforted, then you are pushed out in to a new and unknown world. An infant is born completely unable to cope with anything and any feeling or experience is stressful to the infant because it is unable to respond, it relies upon it’s parents to meet all it’s needs.

We often seem to view infants as emotionally invulnerable because a child appears to be unable to form retrievable memories before the age of 3 or 4 years old; “If a child cannot remember, then how can it’s experiences and memories affect it emotionally?” but neuroscience is teaching us that this is not the case and, in fact, the opposite might be the case; a child’s emotional memories are most vulnerable prior to the ability to form retrievable memories. Why is this? Well not all memories are the same. We store memories in different areas of the brain. Many of our memories are difficult if not impossible to retrieve. Have you ever tried to remember a word that’s been on the tip of your tongue? Have you ever struggled to put a name to a face? Retrievable and learning memory is stored in the hippocampus and this doesn’t reach a fully functioning stage until about 3 or 4 years old. Emotional memories are stored in the amygdala and this begins functioning well before the baby is even born. It is emotional memories that can be the most damaging.

The loss of a parent at this early stage, especially the mother, for any reason, would be perceived as a danger to survival by the infant’s emerging mind. The subsequent emotional memory that would form would be of a powerful and consuming fear of ever losing someone you depended upon; whether through abandonment, or death. This fear would form a deep unconscious fear that may very well haunt the subsequent child, adolescent and adult throughout their emotional lives, affecting their relationships with an unconscious fear of abandonment that may form a complex causing a sabotaging of subsequent relationships throughout their lives when ever feelings of dependency stimulate their fear of abandonment. Crippling their emotional involvements with other people, throughout their lives.

The second affect would be the stress response; large amounts of cortisol would be released by the adrenal glands as a response to the overwhelming experience of the loss of a primary caregiver. Cortisol’s role in stress is to signal all non essential processes to save energy so that energy can be diverted to coping with the overwhelming experience. The lack of anyone to provide for the immediate need for comfort from the overwhelming experience would be experienced as a serious threat to survival. Development of all non essential growth would be halted to meet the immediate need of the infant to respond to the overwhelming experience. The overwhelming experience would stimulate the part of the brain for responding to threat or danger to develop quickly, while halting the development of all other parts of the brain. Research involving brain scan techniques such as fMRI has shown that children that have experienced high and prolonged periods of stress have a larger than normal amygdala and reduced volume in just about all other areas of their brain. The result of this would be what we call “Hyper-Arousal”, or a permanent state of readiness of the autonomous nervous defences to see and respond to danger. The unconscious defence mechanisms would be on the lookout (hyper-vigilant), small things would be magnified (hyper-sensitive), threats would be seen behind every corner, the imagination would see things that would perhaps not be perceived as threatening by a mind in homeostasis, as a potential threat to survival. In effect a permanent heightened state of stress. Such a state is known to produce depression, and other mental imbalances. In fact it is suggested that a state of heightened stress (fear) produced by the above, might be a contributing cause to as much as 98% of cases of mental illness. Such disorders as; Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Manic Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, etc. and it is suggested that even Autistic Spectrum Disorders are connected to dysfunction surrounding the amygdala due to the developing infants response to traumatic experiences in early childhood.

 A link to some of the inspirational work of Allan N Shore