Our Early Life Experiences Shape Who We Are, how We Think, how We Feel, how We Process Stress and Inform Our Beliefs and Behaviors (Part I)

Most people with “severe childhood adversity” are chronically dysregulated

When traumatic experiences push us out of balance, our brain activates our body's stress-response systems to help us. This results in a variety of physiological reactions, including increased heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol.

Most people who experienced severe adversity as children develop a “trauma-sensitized” stress response system – wounded and anxious – whose dysfunction is in direct proportion to how they were or were not loved.

Finding a balance can be an exhausting challenge for anyone suffering from a dysregulated stress response system – one that is both dysfunctional and often excessive. Moreover, the classic "fight-or-flight" stress response, called the arousal response, is rarely an option for most young victims. Staying put to fight the threat is usually futile, as is fleeing to safety – it does not protect – but "disappearing" might. Thus, a dissociative response can be an effective adaptive strategy when fight or flight is not an option. In this case, we learn to shut down emotionally and retreat into our inner world. One of the benefits of dissociation is the ability to conform to the desires of others, thereby avoiding conflict.

The brain is a meaning-making device, constantly trying to make sense of the world

Our brain is a meaning-making machine, constantly trying to make sense of the world. As we develop, our brain triages and stores our life experiences, forming our own "code book" that helps us create our "worldview". In Dr. Perry’s words, "Our internal worldview becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; we project what we expect, and this helps elicit what we expect." For example, if our perception of the world is that people are trustworthy, then we anticipate good things from them. We project that expectation in our interactions with others and thus inspire good. "We elicit from the world what we project into the world, but what we project is based on what happened to us as a child," Perry explains.

My perception of the world, due to childhood trauma, was obscured by the fear of abandonment

I have been sitting alone at the kitchen table for three days. My only companion is  the rattle of the clock above the door. Mama was admitted to the hospital for a minor surgical procedure, and for the past three days, I haven't seen  anyone: not Mama, not Papa, not my brothers. It was just me in the house. Earlier in the day, I went to see our neighbors. They hadn't heard any news and didn't know any more than I did.  I finally went to church, but this usually so welcoming place, rather than comforting me, felt dark, cold, and distant. So, I returned to the kitchen. While I was at the kitchen table, my brother René walked in, visibly exhausted from watching over Mama for three days and three nights. All I remember were his words: "Complications from the anesthesia", "Mama is dead". Certain details are still embedded in my memory – the ticking of the clock, René’s voice, his grave tone, the blue color of his shirt…  And then, I was overcome by deep sadness, a feeling of emptiness, and so many unvoiced questions... The shock was incredibly brutal: Mama, who had made my childhood so blissful, was now gone – and there was no one to talk to during those three heartbreaking days. Later, René took me with him to his room so that I wouldn’t be alone. There he fell asleep, while I stared at the ceiling.

My life experience at 14 was limited. I was suddenly motherless and without emotional support – left to my own fate. Mama had been the central link in our family. Now, with the loss of the maternal bond, we were four loosely connected individuals, brought together by “biological randomness”.

My brothers were married. They resumed their family life.

At home, it was just me and Papa now. He became silent, and then he started not being home very often. The end of each day turned into a daily nightmare. I dreaded the moment when our housekeeper would leave the house to go home, and I'd be faced with the oppressive silence of the house.

About three months after Mama's death, Papa introduced me to Lucie, his new companion, my future stepmother, who would move in with us a year later.  At first, I welcomed her arrival: she was a "presence" who could potentially fill the void left by my mother's death.  But, very soon, I realized that this would not be the case.

The painful realization that "Mama's departure" was definitive triggered in me an agonizing sense of abandonment. Also, my family’s apparent lack of interest and coldness towards my fate hurt me deeply. No one seemed to notice my distress. Where were they when I sat alone at the kitchen table watching the minutes and days go by without anyone checking on me? Who took the time to talk to me or comfort me? Everyone had gone their own way. It didn't take me long to realize that I had to step up and take control of my destiny - and that's what I did.

In a sense, I came to equate success with not needing anyone. I must have derived some self-worth from never needing help. Eventually, I decided to try to become so strong and high achieving that I would never need anyone, and no one could ever hurt me again. Somewhere along the line, I came to believe that I could only survive if I was tough.

The good news is that the brain remains malleable

“Although I experienced abuse and trauma as a child, my brain found ways to adapt. This is where hope lives for all of us – in the unique adaptability of our miraculous brains”

— Oprah Winfrey

Emotional recovery from trauma and restoration of balance is possible because the brain is malleable throughout life. We can change – the brain is constantly evolving. A child is not born resilient, it is born malleable. This means that we retain the ability throughout life to strengthen our coping mechanisms and make them more effective.

As a child who experienced chaos – who was left alone for three days and three nights – my brain struggled with conflicting feelings about human connection. It organized my worldview around the premise that the world was not safe – people are unpredictable, inconsistent and can disappear – I can be abandoned. This anxiety-inducing environment, coupled with minimal support, set off a stress response that led me to disengage from the outside world and to withdraw emotionally into myself. The classic "fight or flight" response was not an option. I couldn't physically run away - where would I go? and the fight was futile - my brain kept telling me I couldn't win a fight with people who were absent or unavailable. So, dissociation was my primary coping mechanism to survive. Neurophysiological changes associated with dissociation, such as the release of endogenous opioids (endorphins, enkephalin), our own natural painkillers, helped with coping. While the physiology of the arousal response is designed to optimize fight or flight, the physiology of dissociation is designed to promote rest, recovery, injury survival, and pain tolerance. The ability to dissociate and "stay regulated in protective mode" was very powerful. It allowed me to focus on maintaining access to the higher “thinking” parts of the brain or cortex (fear blocks the cortex) – to think and focus on specific tasks and success. For example, I continued to do well in school, even though it took a lot more energy and effort to succeed.

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