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.