The implications of trauma and stress in early life: disconnection from the body and others
“In early life, the day-to-day experiences with caregivers, especially with mother, generate neuronal traces that form implicit memory that later underpin social life” (Narvaez, 2014, p. 257). Lived experience is the back-and-forth interaction between the activated senses and memory of related experiences (Ansermet & Magistretti, 2007). “Thus, the brain is a social dynamic organ whose neuronal connections are modified by external experience (life events) and internal experience (biological and psychic events), structurally and functionally creating a unique, singular individual” (2007, p. 6). This process of neural plasticity begins prior to birth (Partanen et al., 2013). My newborn daughter used to move her body in rhythm with the classical music to which she had been regularly exposed prenatally. She also looked content during her dance, showing a prenatal imprinting of the emotion associated with the musical stimulus. Other mothers have reported similar behaviour of their babies exposed to prenatal music listening. This could demonstrate the neural correlates of human foetal learning and memory of music or speech-like auditory stimuli. Partanen and colleagues have demonstrated a significant correlation between the amount of prenatal exposure and brain activity, with greater activity being associated with a higher level of prenatal speech exposure. Music
Raising children towards wisdom 65 can have the same influence as human speech on a foetus’s learning. The learning effect can be generalised to other types of prenatal experiences.
Poor early experience leads to a non-integrative functioning of the brain and internal reality (Siegel, 1999). Siegel describes how the wisdom fostered by mindfulness practice can support integration of the brain and thus mindbody (2007). Prenatal exposure to chronic stressful life events is associated with a significantly increased risk of autistic disorders (AD), schizophrenia, depression, learning deficits, perinatal complications, immunologic and neuroinflammatory anomalies and low postnatal tolerance to stress (Kinney et al., 2008). This is because high levels of stress during critical phases of development can disrupt foetal brain development. This explains the value of the broad spectrum of benefits provided by mindfulness practice during pregnancy, ideally before conceiving a child.
Chronic stress alters the integrative functioning of the brain and our emotion systems but also our thinking and reasoning. For those who were neglected or abused, the perception of external reality and awareness of the present moment can be overwhelmed and distorted by internal reality (e.g. fantasy) (Freud, 1911). Trauma experienced in the past, unless healed, alters present attention, curtails full perceptions, and even movements, gestures and actions or forms of vitality (Stern, 2010). When too much stress has been experienced too early, our nervous and immune systems, our entire physiology, do not work properly, creating a predisposition to illness (Ladd et al., 1996; van der Kolk, 1987). There are ongoing effects on our capacity for self-regulation and social and moral functioning.
Relational trauma has the most significant implications on development because humans are social mammals who depend on social caring relations to develop into a well-functioning human being. Human relational nature manifests during prenatal development (Emerson, 1996; Janus, 2001; Carter Castiello et al., 2010; Ammaniti & Gallese, 2014). In fact, newborns already show a drive for intersubjective engagement straight after birth (Trevarthen & Aitken, 2003). This predisposition is particularly evident when a prenatal bonding has been nurtured. Multiple systems related to the stress response are influenced by early caregiving, with consequences on brain development and behaviour. These include the amygdala, the vagus nerve, gene expression and the LHA axis (Kaufman et al., 2000; Meaney, 2010; Porges, 2011). Chronic early stress or trauma increases the amygdala’s capacity’ to learn and express fear and the incapacity of the prefrontal cortex to control it, generating a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety that in turn increases stress and dysregulation. The high reactivity linked to greater activation in the right prefrontal cortex in early life is likely to become a part of the personality; On a body level, the individual shuts down from his body sensations, which once were involved in the traumatic events, because reconnecting with them would be too painful. This impaired bodyself awareness hinders the parent’s capacity to engage with the baby/child.
In consequence, chronic stress and mental suffering (when not processed) hinders our sense of the present moment, our ability to be attentive and receptive, to trust others and to perceive the flow of life and its forms of vitality We are more irritable, disconnected and less forgiving. We are more likely to develop a safety “fear” mindset, rather than being open to the unknown, with compassion, listening, connection and empathy. These tendencies do not support parenting and children’s healthy development. They do not foster the well-being of a society and its relationship with other societies, including indigenous communities, group minorities, and Nature - the animals and plants around us - which can result in disrespect and maltreatment. I believe that this disconnection from our being in the natural world and community has led to a disconnection from our bodily feelings, thus our social mammalian nature, curtailing the deep journey through parenting and its fulfilment. This mindset may also be reflected in many parenting instruction-based courses available. The mindset that causes the problem cannot cure it.
Later I will describe how the wisdom abilities fostered by mindfulness practice support parenting and children’s healthy development. They are vital for a mother to perceive a developing relational presence in the womb, to be attentive in picking up and interpreting the baby’s cues and nuances, thus, to connect and be responsive. Thanks to the brain’s neuroplasticity and ever-changing being, we can free ourselves from genetic determinism. We can overcome rigidity and repeated behavioural patterns through continued practice.
Adolescents and adults can self-create through a process of transformation, freeing themselves from psychological and biological determinism and reshaping their neurobiology (Ansermet & Magistretti, 2007/2004). By doing so, they can potentially prepare for fulfilling parenting, or a prenatal or perinatal profession, or just a contributing member of the community, either way making a positive impact on infants’ and children’s development. We can actively transform our being, creating new neuronal networks and making neural transmission efficient through our imagination and practice (Bear, 2003). Beliefs, thoughts and imagination are physiological events generating changes in energy and affecting muscle strength, movement, gesture (forms of vitality) and the experience of vitality (Stern, 2010). A ground-breaking study empirically proved what athletes and musicians intuitively already know: that those who only imagined exercising a muscle increased its strength as much as those who actually exercised the muscle (Yue & Cole, 1992). We can imagine how a mother may influence her unborn baby’s predispositions and human traits through her mental states, imagination and interactions. When we can combine a daily formal practice (e.g. meditation) with the intention to be as mindful as possible throughout the day, we enable mindfulness to flow into our life and into our mental habits, offering the opportunity for transformation and growth.
This openness to letting being and brain be transformed by experience is of great significance to modern parenting in a world where humanity and the natural world are at high risk. Young people, the prospective parents, can enhance their well-being and caring abilities, their mindfulness through practice and influence their children’s psychobiological well-being and wisdom, beginning in pregnancy and ideally before conception. This does not mean controlling their children’s development but rather nurturing their being and inter-being to prepare a healthy environment in the womb and fulfilling relationships with the children. Humans are dynamic biosocial beings transformed by relationships and experience. This realisation is liberating as it teaches us to relate to our experience of living in a new way: to accept difficult emotions and mental states - our shame, our loneliness, our anger-with kindness and compassion, rather than resisting and wanting them to go away, because they can be transformed and are transient. The wisdom fostered by the practice of mindfulness offers a way to restore human nature to its full potential. The natural world, as well as the social environment, to which human beings belong, can contribute to human beings’ transformation through cooperation, not competitiveness. Creativity and a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of human nature can open many paths to healing and individualise care. The relationship with animals, such as dogs and horses, and a bond with Nature, can also be involved in therapy or healing programmes.