Early Life Interpersonal Trauma and Affect Dysregulation: A Look at Biology
When thinking about affect regulation, it becomes clear that early life attachment relationships between children and their primary caregiver are more than just an emotional bond. The relationship also serves a biological function (Taylor, Lerner, Sage, Lehman, & Seeman, 2004). Young infants and children are dependent upon caregivers to calm themselves in times of stress (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000). In this article we look at the effects of stress and upset in the developing nervous system and the impact of a traumatizing vs. healthy relationship in relation to the biological component of affect regulation.
It is important to understand that especially in young children, stress, fear and sadness are more than just feelings. Emotion states are also biological states. In times of upset, the brain and nervous system undergo a cascade of chemical changes. Heightened levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine become elevated and begin to circulate, letting the body and brain know that something is wrong (Schore, 2002).
In infancy, our brains and nervous systems are too immature to manage strong emotional states. Infants and children reach for their caregiver to bring them not only emotional comfort but to calm their nervous systems and bring their body back into balance. This is the beginning of the child’s development of affect regulation skills.
The building blocks to affect regulation are built in infancy and childhood.
In a healthy caregiver-child relationship, the child’s biological responses to stress are managed by the parent. This does not mean the child is never stressed or unhappy. Stress and upset are normal parts of growing up. In a healthy relationship, the caregiver will comfort the child with understanding and patience. In this way, the child’s stress response is managed and not allowed to continue unchecked. The caregiver’s response does not allow the child to experience high levels of arousal (crying, screaming) for an extended amount of time.
Over time, in a healthy caregiver-child relationship, the child begins to learn that negative emotion states can be managed. Upset will be followed by comfort. This sets the stage for ongoing development of emotion regulation. Not only is the child learning on an emotional and cognitive level, the body (nervous system) is also gaining an innate understanding of how a soothed or comforted state can be expected to follow upset.
Compare this to an infant or child living with an abusive caregiver. Abuse and neglect are detrimental to the child in two ways, not only does the caregiver fail to provide the learning opportunity for the child on a biological level (upset is followed by comfort) the caregiver increases the child’s distress to extreme levels through abuse or neglect. The child misses an important learning opportunity that occurs on biological, cognitive and emotional levels.
Second, if the infant or child’s distress is increased and allowed to continue for an extended length of time, the nervous system is exposed to a potential toxic environment of circulating stress hormones (Schore, 2008).
When an infant or child is subjected to an ongoing stressful environment, all of their resources and energy goes into managing their emotion states. An infant or child will respond in two ways, hyperarousal (extreme emotional response such as screaming and crying) or disassociation (passive withdrawal from the environment) in a desperate attempt to manage it’s own stress response.
In states of dissociation, the body responds with decreased blood pressure, lowered metabolism and heart rate. This calm physical state occurs despite the elevated stress hormones circulating in the body. In this way the calm state is still detrimental to the nervous system, as the chemical stress response is ongoing.
What does this look like in the wider context of a child’s life?
A child who is required to place all their efforts on managing emotion states and stress, in an emotionally toxic or neglectful environment, can focus on nothing else. This means missed opportunities for learning more than just emotion regulation. The child also misses opportunities to learn age appropriate social skills, such as healthy ways of relating to people. Often, abused children have not had the chance to develop social skills which may also lead to increased stressed due to an inability to relate well with peers. Children raised in abusive environments often have difficulty in school because their energy and attention are not focused on their studies.
Can therapy help?
The brain retains its ability to change throughout the entire lifespan. Even with a history of early life abuse and trauma, the nervous system can learn emotion regulation skill. Connecting with an understanding therapist who is able to provide a supportive relationship as well as teach emotion regulation skills may make a difference.
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. New York: Vintage Books.
Schore, A. N. (2002). Dysregulation of the right brain: a fundamental mechanism of traumatic attachment and the psychopathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 36(1), 9-30.
Schore, A. N. (2008). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. In Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self (pp. 54-70). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J. S., Sage, R. M., Lehman, B. J., & Seeman, T. E. (2004). Early environment, emotions, responses to stress, and health. Journal of personality, 72(6), 1365-1394.