According to trauma therapist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk, secure kids “learn to trust both what they feel and how they understand the world.” On the other hand, insecure children find the world disorganized and distressing. “If the distress is overwhelming, or when the caregivers themselves are the sources of the distress, children are unable to modulate their arousal.”
How does a sense of security or insecurity develop? How does it affect a person’s adult life? Let’s consider two fictional adults I’m going to call Suzie and Ingrid. I chose those names so you can easily remember that Suzie, whose name starts with S, generally feels safe and secure; and Ingrid, whose name starts with I, feels insecure, often for no apparent reason.
The role of the amygdala
When Suzie’s amygdala triggers the release of stress hormones to call her attention to something unfamiliar, she experiences a surge of arousal. Because her caregivers have routinely responded to her when this happened in the past, the surge of arousal doesn’t alarm her. Rather, it causes her to feel curious about what is going on. Curiosity causes her to look around. If she finds nothing amiss, she pauses for a moment and then drops the matter.
When a surge of stress hormones arouse Ingrid, she, unlike Suzie, experiences alarm. Because of past experience, she associates alarm with danger. She too tries to figure out what is going on, but her belief that there is danger makes it hard for her to assess the situation in a balanced way. If she can’t identify the danger that she believes must exist, she begins to imagine what it might be. And as long as she continues to feel alarmed, she can’t drop the matter.
Though Ingrid has a huge frontal cortex capable of logical thought, her assessment of the situation is made by a part of the brain the size of a nut.
We sometimes say that seeing is believing. In Ingrid’s case, feeling is believing. Her sense of alarm makes her believe that there must be danger, even if she can’t see what it is. She knows that her eyes can play tricks on her and make it appear something is true that isn’t, but she regards her feelings as infallible.
She doesn’t understand that arousal is merely the way the amygdala gets her attention, sending her a signal that she needs to determine whether or not a danger exists. Instead of recognizing that stress hormones are signalling her to make a determination, she believes the determination has already been made. She believes feeling aroused or alarmed proves there is danger.
In other words, the amygdala releases stress hormones to grab a person’s attention and direct their high-level thinking towards determining whether an unfamiliar situation poses a real threat.
But Ingrid doesn’t use her high-level thinking. When stress hormones hit, she feels alarmed. Lacking the mental programming to shift alarm to alertness, she stays alarmed. Because she feels alarmed, she feels afraid. Because she feels afraid, she believes there is danger. Her assessment of the situation is based not on high-level thinking but on emotion.
Though Ingrid has a huge frontal cortex capable of logical thought, her assessment of the situation is made by a part of the brain the size of a nut. What has led her to turn over control of her life to a part of her brain that can’t think?
Psychological trauma in childhood
Suzie learned early in life to distinguish arousal, alarm, fear and danger. Ingrid experiences all of these feelings as one and the same, fused by early trauma. Her early life may have been similar to that of a client who told me that when his father was sober, they got along fine. But when Dad started drinking, the client’s arousal level increased sharply because he knew that sooner or later he was going to be hit. For him, feelings of arousal continued to mean fear and danger into adulthood.
Arousal, alarm, fear and danger can be conflated even when a person hasn’t experienced physical trauma. Julian Ford, professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, explains that the most complex form of trauma isn’t physical but psychological.
Psychological trauma involves “interactions with people who teach the child or adolescent to focus on danger and survival rather than on trust and learning.” If these interactions occur early in childhood, while the brain is particularly malleable, “lasting changes in the personality and the self occur.”
Since arousal equals fear, and fear equals danger, stress hormones that trigger arousal cause alarm. When arousal occurs, instead of feeling curious and going into a learning mode, the person fears danger and goes into a survival mode. As an adult, the person is subject to “entrenched expectations of danger that lead to preoccupation with detecting and defending against threats.” In short, inadequate automatic regulation of arousal, coupled with the belief that arousal means danger, can lead to panic.
In a person whose childhood arousal was responded to calmly by early caregivers, alarm is automatically down-regulated to alertness, interest or curiosity. In a person with a history of relationships in which arousal led to and became associated with pain or injury, arousal must be regulated by being able to control what happens in the situation—or by being able to escape from the situation—to prevent possible pain or injury.
Unable to depend on others for safety, the person believes that safety depends on their being in control or able to escape. The lack of control or a means of escape may lead to anxiety and panic.
Neurons firing and wiring together
When a house is built, plumbing and wiring are installed early in the process. Once installed, the pipes and wires are likely to remain unchanged for the life of the house. The same is true of the brain’s wiring. Early relationships literally wire up a child’s emotional-control circuitry. Here is how “neurons that fire together wire together.”
When a mother smiles at a child, her smile causes millions of neurons to fire.
This phrase encapsulates the neurological theory presented by Donald Hebb in his 1949 book The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. When adjacent neurons in the brain fire at the same time, they connect to each other and form a new circuit.
Think of welding. If a red-hot piece of metal touches another piece of metal, the two pieces become attached. If an electrical current is then applied to one piece, it flows through the other as well.
Let’s apply Hebb’s axiom to relationships. When a mother smiles at a child, her smile causes millions of neurons to fire. Some neurons, those in close proximity when the firing takes place, connect. This causes a modification of the circuitry. Once firing together has led to wiring together, the signal that originally travelled along one neural pathway now travels along a second pathway as well.
The first day of kindergarten
How does this get translated into emotional regulation? Let’s try an oversimplified example. Let’s imagine that Suzie and Ingrid are children heading to kindergarten for the first time. Both are going alone, without their mothers to calm them. Let’s pretend they’re both precocious and savvy about neuropsychology. Suzie might say something like this:
I’ll be OK, Mom, because when I was younger, every time I felt upset, you tuned into me. You could tell what I was feeling. You showed me light at the end of the tunnel by telling me that, though I was upset, I would feel better in just a minute. Because you did this repeatedly, the neurons that fired when you calmed me wired together. Now, when I start to get upset, your face, voice and touch automatically calm me.
At kindergarten, though you will not be with me physically, you’ll be with me psychologically. While I’m away, you’ll have me in your mind, and I’ll have you in my mind. Even though we’re in two different places, we’ll still be connected.
Suzie’s memories of the many times her mother calmed her are stored like a video in her mind. Being upset automatically triggers the Play button, and the video plays in Suzie’s unconscious procedural memory. As it does, Suzie unconsciously sees her mom’s face. Her mom’s soft eyes calm her.
Suzie hears her mom’s voice: “I know how you feel. It’s OK. Everything’s going to be fine.” Suzie unconsciously feels her mother’s reassuring touch. These memories activate Suzie’s parasympathetic nervous system. Calming takes over, and soon everything is OK.
What about Ingrid? Her mother didn’t consistently respond to her meltdowns in a way that was calming. Sometimes she responded as Suzie’s mother did, but at other times she didn’t respond at all. And sometimes she invalidated Ingrid’s feelings, saying, “There’s nothing to be upset about,” or “Stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
When alarmed, Suzie seeks out her mother, a reliable haven of safety. But when Ingrid is alarmed, if she turns to her mother, she may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Research shows that children in Ingrid’s predicament, having nowhere to turn, become more alarmed, and once alarmed, remain alarmed longer than other children. “Thus, not only is the onset of sympathetically driven fear-alarm states more rapid, but their offset is prolonged, and they endure for longer periods of time,” according to Allan Schore.