I should explain that when I’m talking about ‘trauma’, it has to be understood from a very subjective perception, that is, the perception of who you were at the age when the trauma occurred. Often we might look back over our lives and dismiss events as being ‘trivial’, or ‘so long ago’, forgetting that for our younger self they might have meant the world to us! If we felt deeply isolated or ashamed, we might have buried the experience in our subconscious and never addressed it, however our body will still hold a memory which can be stirred up again by anything that reminds us of the original event.
This somatic memory is quite an amazing thing! When we experience a shock – the UDIN that I mentioned earlier – our initial response can be to go into freeze. In that moment our brain takes a snapshot of the information it’s receiving from all of our senses and stores it away for future reference. It wants to keep us safe from ever experiencing such a deep sense of threat again and so, if it ever senses something that has any similarity to that snapshot – perhaps a smell, a shape, a sound, a taste or a feeling – then it can feel as if that same threat is present in that moment, and we will feel again that pounding heart, dry mouth, sweaty palms and churning stomach.
When we are very young the cortex of our brain is not yet fully developed, so our social skills are not yet fully honed. We’re still learning about the world and the nuances of human interactions. We rely heavily on our ‘gut’ responses and our reptilian brain, without the ‘reasoning’ ability to balance this out. Also, up until the age of about 7 years old, we’re in what’s known as a ‘hypnogogic’ state, meaning that we take everything in, like a sponge, with no filters to assess whether it’s true or false, supportive or otherwise.
In addition, while “humans learn to differentiate between happy, sad, and angry expressions relatively early on, there’s a learning curve when it comes to mastering more subtle facial expressions, like surprise, fear, and disgust.”
So, if we regularly see a face that frowns at us – perhaps our mother is tired, our father has had a stressful day at work or the person caring for us is deeply worried about something – all we might be picking up on is that they are not happy and, as a small infant, this can feel like a threat to our safety. Our reptilian brain knows that to be cut off from this caring family unit would mean death and so this brings up a deep sense of fear.
Gabor Maté also shares that we have 2 basic human needs – the need for attachment and the need for authenticity – however in this situation above, a child will feel that they need to compromise. Loss of attachment (connection, security and support) will result in death and so authenticity may be sacrificed, purely for reasons of survival.
If this feeling of lack of attachment is later repaired, the child can recover their authenticity, but if no such repair is offered it can leave emotional and cognitive scars, actually impacting on how the brain develops for that child, leading to changes in their resilience and ability to respond in conscious and proportionate ways in the future.
So, if you find yourself experiencing reactions that seem disproportionate, it could be because you are holding old traumas within your body. Any sensations that remind you of that trauma will throw you right back into those same feelings: feelings such as abandonment, rejection, fear, anxiety and dread.