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The Dynamics of Stalking

(Seeing through the popular paradigms and the media fuelled paranoia)

An overview of the problem.

Fuelled by the popular media frenzies and high profile stories, we collectively carry a simple and dichotomised view of “stalking” and that is that the stalker is always the dysfunctional “bad” person and that the stalked person is always the victim. Subsequently we have a very “Black & White” perception of what stalking is and I want to challenge that paradigm. The popular media’s main commodity is fear. Stimulating public fear focuses people’s attention and increases their circulation which increases their advertising revenue. Therefore, to the media, fear is good. However to the public, fear is bad, at least the kind of constant state of apprehension that a relentless 24 hour media provides. These are things that will generally, for the vast majority of us, never touch our lives, yet are brought in to our homes via media news. From what we understand about a process called neuroplasticity, we know that experience and environment adapt our neural circuits to meet environmental demands. The consequences of an induced state of arousal are huge in terms of brain plasticity, neural wiring and our internal biological communication mechanisms. Changes in brain wiring to favour a more primitive fear oriented approach have a consequence on our reasoning and empathic qualities. They impact social interactions to be more guarded and more driven by self-interest. They change the way the brain focuses on certain tasks or subjects by introducing a more myopic and distorted outlook. 24 hour media has only been with us a couple of decades, now, so it is too early to predict how epigenetic changes are going to impact upon subsequent generations, but we may be heading down a path of emotional devolution. We may have kick started a process where our brains are being primed to favour primitive structures for more and more executive functions. We may be at risk of damaging, or even losing the reasoning capabilities that contribute to social cohesion. We fear stalkers because we have been taught to fear them, to fear the very idea of them. We have been taught not to look beyond the black and white image and not to investigate the deeper dynamics occurring within the stalker narrative. The media narrative of the stalker appeals to our phylogenetic need to know who or what, out there, is out to get us. To know when we are safe, we need to have an idea of what is not safe and it seems that this vigilance to danger is our brains default mode.

Dichotomising

Things we don’t understand resonate within structures of the brain associated with fear. We feel an implicit sense of safety and security when everything is in its place. We have a strong and very basic phylogenetic need for security. Because of this, we have a lamentable tendency to dichotomise and taxonomise everything around us, so that anything complex and difficult to understand is organised in a ways we feel safer with. This tendency has both benefits and failings; often the compartmentalisation leads to distortions, exaggerations and myopic attitudes that twist things away from their true and complex nature in to simplified form that lacks, or leads away from, precision rather than achieves precision. Our fear of what we don’t understand is appeased by forging an artificial and forced form of understanding.

What actually causes stalking?

Firstly; we need to understand that the underlying basis of so called stalking is that of the primary mechanism of attachment. I have spoken of the biology of attachment before, but to sum up, we are all generally born wired to make emotional attachments as a primary survival strategy of, not just our species, but throughout a wide variety of species. Generally speaking, although our modern society now provides a safety net, an infant that doesn’t form an emotional bond to a parent figure has little hope of survival. Many factors can lead to a breakdown of the primary attachment.

  1. Prior to conception; epigenetic factors passed down through changes in DNA in eggs and sperm that can lead to developmental problems in emotional processing and behaviours that may interfere with and sabotage the attachment process.
  2. In utero (during pregnancy); If the mother is experiencing repetitive stressful environments the foetus in the womb is bombarded by stress associated hormones. Repeated aggression, for instance, is associated with elevated levels of testosterone, and in turn, elevated levels of testosterone in the womb have recently been linked to the development of autism.
  3. At birth and during early years; a mother may suffer postpartum depression which interferes with emotional bonding. A combination of 1 & 2 may result in an infant that is difficult to bond with and triggers a mother to be emotionally unavailable. Many other external and internal factors can contribute to a failure to form an emotional bond after birth.

We are familiar with the classical stalking as a dysfunctional attachment from which Mr Paul Mullen has derived his (rather forced) taxonomy. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201306/in-the-mind-stalker The attachment here is unwanted and unsolicited. But there is another and more complex side to what we think of as stalking that needs to be addressed and is often overlooked in our lamentable tendency to dichotomise the subject; that some cases of stalking are actually solicited and caused by a dysfunction in the stalked rather than the stalker. These are ones that often begin as a relationship but that follow a break up. Early relational environments that are inconsistent, fearful and unpredictable can cause an implicit inability to form a genuine attachment because the early life attachment experience caused an intense fear response. This is combined and in competition with an innate biological drive to form an attachment. A healthy and genuine attachment is, or should be in an ideal relational world, one mutually made for life, but some people that have had early unhealthy or traumatic experiences of attachment form implicit danger, or “fight or flight”, reactions to making an attachment to someone. The need to attach is still there as it is a primary action tendency, but the reaction to attachment is one of survival and that the attachment itself is the source of the threat. The need to attach may, in fact, become ramped up and more desperate in the psyche due to the constant internal bash ups, but that it always gets to a stage where the attachment is perceived as a threat. The attachment is solicited, sometimes in an almost manic fashion. When you have someone with a healthy attachment mechanism attach to someone with an unhealthy attachment mechanism due to a history of attachment trauma you have a powerful source of dissonance. We all carry the drive to form attachments, but as soon as the person with an unhealthy attachment mechanism feels exposed and vulnerable to an attachment an alternative mechanism of detachment takes over and the person goes in to fight or flight mode. The genuinely attached is left confused and disorientated by the sudden and unexpected disconnection. That one person can disconnect so easily (because they have a history of relational stresses that have cemented in place the implicit lesson that attachment = danger), when another person with a far healthier attachment mechanism finds that disconnection, once made, is almost impossible, they become labelled as the dysfunctional stalker because they cannot emotionally disconnect when the true dysfunction is in the person who has a genuine inability to form meaningful bonds and is subsequently stalked. On the one hand you have someone with a somewhat unhealthy attachment pattern where they have an unrequited need to form an attachment, but that object of attachment is subsequently and inevitably rejected once the attachment begins becoming significant because it triggers dissonance and innate “fight or flight” behaviours. And on the other hand you have someone with a somewhat dependent form of attachment that is suddenly thrown emotionally overboard without a lifeline and who then seeks to hold on in some way to the emotional commitment that they have made to the other. On the surface you have the popular image of the stalker and the stalked, but look deeper in to the dynamics and you have an interaction between someone that has some serious emotional problems forming and maintaining relationships, leaving casualties in their frantic attempts to overcome an implicitly learned program; that an emotional attachment is a source of potential catastrophe, so the innate processes of survival reject and sabotage an attachment that threatens to cross the threshold of safety. The object of attachment is thus seen as a source of danger that needs to be avoided, evaded, or otherwise discouraged. The object of attachment, unable to break their attachment because the attachment process is an innate part of our biology, continues to try to maintain a form of attachment. There may even be occasions where, despite the rejection, the continued attention can be maintained through implicitly encouraging the attention. The attention may feed a certain unconscious need and may even provide a perverse gratification and validation. People that fit in to the borderline category of relational dynamics, or the “I hate you, don’t leave me” mould often flick back and forth between rejection and attachment, and rejection, in this case, is often an attempt to seek validation and an affirmation of value.

To Summarise

Although, in many cases, it is indeed the stalker that is the problem, the stalked, under some circumstances, can be active in soliciting the problem.  The stalked (especially if they meet some of the borderline criteria) may be actively yet implicitly encouraging and desiring the attention. We need to see beyond the myopic dichotomy of stalking and allow a greater public understanding of the relational dynamics so often involved. An unexpected and unexplainable detachment is highly traumatic to a person that has formed an emotional bond. Such trauma can throw the psyche right out of balance and cause some rather unpredictable and irrational behaviours in attempting to restore or fix that bond. Behaviours that only exacerbate the underlying irrational conditioned fears that led to the detachment of that bond because the bond itself is the underlying cause of the fear. Stalking, therefore is a more complex dynamic than the good/bad dichotomy that popular paradigms and media inform us of. Stalking can not only be caused by a dysfunctional attachment in the stalker, but also by dysfunctional attachment patterns in the stalked.

Trauma

What do we actually mean by the term “Trauma” when used in a psychological context?

Stress, especially stress while the brain is still vulnerable and developing, is the most potent driving force for Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the term we use to describe the process of adaptation the wiring in our brain makes as a response to our experiences and our environments. Experiences and environments, especially extreme and challenging experiences and environments, have the power to shape and change the way our brain cells grow and wire themselves together. Our brain cells are like individuals in themselves and we each have around 80 to 90 billion of them, they connect together and communicate through microscopic filaments called axons and dendrites. These axons and dendrites are insulated by a covering of something called myelin to stop them being affected by unwanted stimulation. How well our brain cells communicate with each other depends upon the healthy development of the cells, connections and insulating myelin. When our brain cells struggle to communicate and maintain cooperation, the environment in our brain can become unstable and we may also present to the external world in ways that appear unstable in terms of our personality and responses, especially to stressors. Instead of cooperation and presenting as a cohesive whole

How developmental experiences of fear affect our fear response is both biological and contextual.

Biologically, fear in the developing mind causes an increase in development of the structures and processes for responding to danger, the greater the experience, or the duration of the experience, the faster and stronger become the structures and processes for responding to danger. At the same time as these structures receive a boost in energy, other structures not vital to responding to danger experience reduced energy supply, including and especially processes and structures that are involved in inhibiting the response to danger.

Contextually, whatever caused the initial fear is filed away in the memory systems of fear processing. These memory systems are not what are called “declarative memory”, or the kind of memory that we can recall in sounds and images. These memories are stored in a parallel system to consciousness that is mobilised to affect our actions, words and behaviours when confronted with anything that reminds us (unconsciously) of the experience that caused the initial fear.

Every time a child experiences fear, it both alters the structures of their brain and the structures of the personal narratives (stories) the child (and subsequent adult) lives by and uses to understand their place in the world.

In terms of development, a little bit of fear is good as it trains the fear response. If the fear is short lived, solvable and overcome, then it becomes an important learning experience through which the child learns coping skills for life and how to mobilise and provide a solution to life’s problems.

However, when the fear is an ongoing state, continuous, repetitive, or intense, with no apparent solution or escape, that it becomes highly poisonous to development. The stress hormones, when they are unrelenting, act like a poison on both our body and our mind. More so, when our brains are young and still growing. Not only does it cause changes in our brain, but it causes changes in the immune system and biological maintenance of our bodies because energy is being redirected to the muscles and away from our organs, immune system and cell maintenance processes, compromising both our present and future health in innumerable ways.

In fact, even before birth, our brains are responding to and adapting to our mother’s emotional states while we are still in the womb, preparing us for the kind of world our mother is experiencing. This adaptation is not without its perils, high levels of prenatal testosterone in the womb, which would be being produced in response to aggressive maternal behaviours and environments, have been linked to the developmental problems of autism. Even before conception both the eggs in the ovaries and the sperm in the testes are altering their DNA in response environment and experience that have developmental consequences for any child conceived from union between egg and sperm.

Every parent damages their children in some way. We are incredibly ignorant, in our societies, of what is actually going on inside a child as they grow and develop, the fine tuning of neurons and how they connect to their neighbours, and how this whole process of growth is experience and environment dependent and how parents are the primary determining factor in the experience and environment. Parents enter parenting knowing nothing about parenting other than what they learned by being parented. We need to teach the basics of developmental neuroscience in schools alongside Maths and English so that tomorrow’s parents can enter parenting with the knowledge and understanding that their children’s positive and negative experiences and environments will affect their children’s paths of development.

This is not about regretting, blaming or shaming. The past has been and gone and cannot be changed, but the future is a big ball of clay waiting to be shaped by our hands. Don’t waste your time or emotions on regrets about the past, invest your time and emotions in the present to build a better future.

Let’s build a better, happier and more connected world for future generations.

Dr Bekman mentions 9 months, but we now understand that trauma can actually occur in utero based upon a maternal response to prenatal stressors. And even prior to the prenatal environment, female emotional environment and stressors can cause change in the genetic information contained in the eggs produced in her ovaries and in the DNA contained in the male’s sperm

Belonging is an essential biological need for all social creatures. Our biology is such that, should we feel ostracised from our ‘group’ or a person we feel a belonging connection with, we biologically go in to a self destructive state which may also include a self destructive narrative (suicide & self harm), too.  Or, alternatively, the inclination to harm or destroy others, often referred to as ‘psychopathy’*.

The stress hormone cortisol is released in large amounts as a response to a disconnection of belonging and if we experience that level for anything more than a fleeting duration, it becomes highly destructive to our biology and brain. Our biology requires a regular maintenance cycle, which on the whole occurs while we sleep, repairing and replacing cells, etc. This regular maintenance cycle is disrupted by cortisol (and lack of sleep). The result of such a disruption to our maintenance cycles can result in reduced immune functions and an increased susceptibility to all sorts of illnesses and disease. Stress allows cortisol through the blood brain barrier and if our neurons and their connections are exposed to high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods, the cortisol begins to destroy the protective myelin covering of those neurons and connections, and eventually damaging and killing those neurons and connections, essentially damaging our brain in ways that, over time, can be measureable. While there is, undoubtedly, a narrative element to depressive symptoms, there is also a biological response and an important part of that biology is the effect of elevated cortisol.

Elevated cortisol has a knock on effect with other hormones and neurotransmitters, reducing their effect by impacting upon and reducing the efficiency of their associated receptors. We are phylogenetically wired to make belonging connections through millions of years of evolution. Such wiring is sometimes referred to as a primary action tendency. What this means it that we are ‘born’ to form belonging connections. Leaving aside the prenatal (in the womb) environment developmental argument for a moment; we have a secondary action tendency that is learnt through experience and environment and that is one of survival and protection.

Our postnatal environments are an essential part of early learning. The infant brain and the path of its growth and the connections it makes in the first years of life are determined by the experiences and environments it finds itself in. Fearful environments cause the infant brain to develop in anticipation of those fearful environments being a constant throughout life. More developmental energy goes to parts of the brain like the amygdala and other areas associated with autonomous and instinctual protective mechanisms. Complex reasoning is not required for survival so areas still to develop like areas of the cortex, the hippocampus, and particularly the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated, and the connections between these areas experience a reduction in developmental energies. The consequence of this is you eventually end up with a person primed for fight or flight; they have an increased tendency to be argumentative, aggressive, violent, or, alternatively, they may have a tendency to run away from conflict, or both, and a reduced ability to control impulsive tendencies. Conceptually, the narrative of the early fearful experiences and environments also play a strong part in this secondary action tendency. What caused the initial fear is integrated in to the autonomous learning of the survival mechanisms. Implicit reminders of that fearful experience or environment will trigger survival behaviours (fight or flight) and the individual might be overwhelmed by the urge to attack or run away without being able to connect that feeling with their present situation. Such overwhelming compulsions without a present situation would cause an effect known as ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Cognitive dissonance is a highly unpleasant state, so we are wired with the inclination to avoid it at all costs. In the case of implicit reminders of fearful experiences or environments, a narrative will be assembled by processes in the brain that connect the implicit emotions of the reminder to something in the current environment, even if, as in neurotic states, this requires a total magnification or fabrication of a threat. So we come back to the primary action tendency of ‘belonging connections’; what happens if the primary action tendency and the secondary action tendency provide a source of internal conflict? What happens if something or more importantly someone, you have formed an important or essential belonging connection to becomes the source of danger? What happens when you implicitly learn to expect secondary danger from a primary belonging connection? What happens when belonging, rather than being implicitly perceived as a source of safety, is, instead, perceived as a source of life threatening danger? This is what occurs when a primary caregiver (mother, etc.) has caused a severe reaction from the secondary action tendency of survival. Bonding and belonging, in any meaningful way, are responded to with an overwhelming implicit survival reaction (fight or flight). Whether it be emotional or physical abuse, death of the connected person, or abandonment by the connection. The response to any subsequent belonging connection is to implicitly fear a repeat of the experience or environment and activate an implicit and autonomous survival reaction to destroy or escape the danger. So, the desire to form a belonging connection is there, but the act of developing that belonging in any meaningful way brings conflict and evasion tactics from the implicit defences. It may be that the desire to form the belonging connection gets stronger as a result of the repeated resistance and an escalation of the internal battle between love and fear, but it inevitably crashes in to the implicit danger response.

The escalation of the conflict between the desire to form a belonging connection, and the implicit response that the connection means danger is an essential ingredient of the dissonance and behaviours associated with the intense, desperate, manic and oppositional relational dynamics of the diagnosis of “Borderline Personality Disorder”, but it’s manifestation is not exclusive to the diagnosis. The implicitly held belief is that making a belonging connection will be a source of safety, but the reality is that any meaningful connection will trigger a course of events in the survival response designed to destroy that connection because that connection, in the fear centres of the brain, means danger.

*worth noting here that the word “psychopath” is not truly a medical term, but a criminal one.

Oxytocin and Autism

The Adaptive Brain

Our brain’s biological path is not set, rather its development is a highly adaptive process that responds to environment and experience. Our earliest experiences and environments occur at the same time that our brains are going through their most rapid stages of growth, so those earliest experiences and environments are critical to how the development of neural circuits adapt to what kind of environment we, as biological organisms, are expecting (prenatal) or experiencing (postnatal).

Prenatal environments (the womb) respond to maternal emotional states and maternal emotional states are dependent upon the mother’s experiences and environments. So what the mother is experiencing while carrying a foetus in the womb, affects the foetus’s development and adapts it to expect the kind of environment that the mother is perceiving and that the foetus expects to be delivered in to, both in terms of physiology and neurology. For instance, high levels of the hormone testosterone during pregnancy, produced as a response to aggression, has been implicated in autism. So repeated or prolonged aggressive episodes during pregnancy appears to have developmental consequences.

Postnatal environments take in a lot of factors, but are predominantly determined by parental interactions during the first few years. The relationship with parental figures, especially the mother, and the level of safety and nurture experienced in that relationship, determine relational patterns throughout the rest of life. If our earliest emotional bonds do not cultivate a sense of safety in making an emotional connection to someone, subsequent emotional connections throughout life will be subject to feelings of not being safe as the fear memory system triggers the amygdala and HP Axis in to a stress response, initiating fight or flight behaviours in response to attempts at genuine intimacy with another.

Early stressful environments cause areas of the brain associated with the fear response to receive a boost in developmental energy. So these areas grow faster, bigger and more dominant than they would in a safe nurturing environment. At the same time, areas of the brain that would normally moderate the fear response don’t receive as much developmental energy as they would have in a safe and nurturing environment. This means that things that shouldn’t cause a big fear/stress response, in fact do cause a fear stress response that the situation doesn’t really call for. As this fear/stress response is autonomous, when it is triggered it becomes very dominant in our thinking, feeling and perceiving. So we may perceive certain things far more negatively than those things actually warrant. Whatever caused the initial stress will be stored away in our emotional memories which will be autonomously triggered by reminders of the initial emotional wound.

Menstrual Problems

At any one time our bodies have a limited supply of available energy. There are complex biological mechanisms that determine how this available energy is made available to various processes. Experience and environment, both internal and external, both current and past, play a large part in determining how these mechanisms determine how and where they should make use of this limited available energy.

Homeostasis is the term used to describe when our body is working harmoniously and when it is in a restful and peaceful state. During Homeostasis, our biological and cellular maintenance tasks get an adequate supply of the available energy. They are constantly fighting against cellular damage and cell and gene mutations. For instance, the BRCA 2 gene, known as the breast cancer gene, and currently, also “The Angelina Jolie” gene, does not actually cause breast cancer, it fights against breast cancer. The reason the BRCA 2 gene has been associated with breast cancer is that the mutation means it is less effective at fighting breast cancer. This, however, is not how the media portrays the problem, preferring the sensational approach that paints the BRCA2 gene as some kind of monster that we should fear. Cortisol and the HPA Axis and their role in diverting energy to muscles as a response to stress, plays a part in how genes and cells mutate.

Stress interrupts homeostasis. Stress sends the signal that the muscles need all available energy via the HPA axis and the hormone cortisol. Cellular breakdown and mutation is going on in our bodies all the time and our biological maintenance systems will usually be working 24 hours a day cleaning up and maintaining cellular and biological health. Stress, however, reduces that available energy and reduces the effectiveness of our natural biological maintenance cycles.

Endometriosis is caused by cellular growths that should be going on inside the ovaries and fallopian tubes, actually growing outside the ovaries and fallopian tubes. This occurs even in healthy individuals. However, in healthy individuals, this dysfunctional behaviour of cells is usually well managed and quickly dealt with. But if our cellular maintenance is working with reduced efficiency, then this unwanted cellular activity is not managed as well as it might otherwise be, and this leads to continued growth that can lead to cysts and lesions on the exterior of the ovaries and fallopian tubes. These cysts and lesions then result in painful periods and other menstrual problems.

Reproductive Problems

The evolution of our stress response goes back to the dawn of evolution itself. Survival has been a biological imperative since the first creatures emerged on our planet and they began eating each other as a source of energy. The stress response grew out of the need not to be eaten so that the continuation of genes and species had the best chance of continuance. The stress response, as previously mentioned, mobilises all available energy to the muscles, it does this because the stress response is a survival response and to survive we need to evade and avoid anything that threatens to eat us because, throughout our evolution, that was the danger.

The stress system remains unchanged in us. It has had our entire evolution to develop and just because the need for it in our modern lives has reduced over the last few centuries does not undo millions of years of evolution.

Stress worked fine when we had to avoid a predator; we either escaped, fought off, or ended up being eaten by the predator. We only needed stress over a short period. Prolonged stress, however, is a product of our modern lives and is a biological disaster. Prolonged stress interferes with a host of biological processes.

However, reproductive problems go back to an earlier time when we still had to evade a predator. When your biology is screaming at you that your immediate environment contains danger then the last thing you want to do is bring a new life in to it. A new life will slow you down and that mean you are more likely to be eaten. And the new life itself will also likely be eaten. A lot of energy and time goes in to developing a new life, so that energy and time is not to be wasted and the biological cycles of reproduction are reduced, interrupted and put on hold by the stress response.

The active biological stress response says “Now is not the time to conceive and have a baby!”

That was all fine when the stress response was fleeting, but with our modern world we seem to have introduced new stresses that are prolonged and/or continuous and this can play havoc with our reproductive systems.

How the Stress Response can Become “Stuck On” By Traumatic Experience.

Traumatic experience, especially developmental traumatic experience, can cause the stress response to become “stuck on”, leading to hypersensitivity, hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance.  This can be tested through saliva tests for levels of the hormone, cortisol. This maladaptive response can have long lasting, or even lifelong effects that disrupt reproductive systems throughout life. Our biological reproductive systems literally become set as default that our environment is too dangerous to allow ourselves to become pregnant and bring a new life in to that environment. Signals are sent to the womb and ovaries to reduce activity and even shut it down, menstrual cycles are interrupted and irregular. All biological processes are running at reduced efficiency; reproduction, digestion, cellular and organ maintenance, etc. Processes across our entire body are compromised by a biology that remains in constant readiness for “Fight or Flight”.

The modern implications for our reproductive system are;

Males:- Reduced sperm count, deformed sperm and low sex drive

Females:-Menstrual problems (pain and excessive bleeding), problems conceiving, problems producing eggs and low sex drive.

It is simply our biology, our stress response, doing the job that it evolved to do, but doing it in a way that is maladaptive and dysfunctional in our modern world.

It is our biology saying, “now is not the time to have sex and make babies because the environment we are in is not a safe one!”

A Further Complication.

If the stress response remains volatile yet conception is achieved, there can be a reduction in the nutritional quality and environment in the womb that can lead to a host of prenatal developmental problems; reduced birth weight, premature birth, developmental “disorders” (for instance; high levels of testosterone in the womb have been implicated in autism. Increased aggressiveness is associated with elevated levels of testosterone), miscarriages and other complications. In extreme cases, miscarriages can be almost immediate or occur within the first few days following conception.

 

Simon Attwood