Early Trauma Feelings: What We Don’t Remember Can Hurt Us

Because we don’t retain memories until after about age three, it is hard to believe that experiences we do not remember in the early years can hurt us. In Making Happiness, Vancouver psychologist, Dr. Geoffrey Carr, contends that we learn a lot in the first year of life that we don’t remember – such as how to walk, talk, and recognize our parents. He notes that the earlier the learning, the more the impact on later development because early learning lays the foundation for later development.

He argues that the learning we don’t remember that hurts us in terms of diminished happiness throughout life pertains to intrusive, trauma feelings. He presents research showing that infants are much more sensitive and aware of their environments than previously thought, and that all infants to some extent experience intense trauma feelings. In addition, he presents evidence that the fetus is affected by the mother’s level of stress and anxiety, and that the birth experience can be highly traumatic if there are complications and unnecessary medical interventions.

According to Dr. Carr, in order to understand how an infant is traumatized, it is important to recognize that it is the infant’s experience of the event rather than the event itself that is traumatizing. From an adult’s point of view, if an infant is in a high level of distress crying alone in its crib, there is no danger. However, it is the infant’s experience that matters. Infants don’t understand why they are in distress, or if or when the distress will stop. The infant’s experience of mild distress quickly escalates into overwhelming feelings of helplessness and emotional pain if the infant isn’t responded to in a timely and sensitive manner.

The only protection that an infant has against experiencing intense trauma feelings is a highly attuned caregiver who responds sensitively to the infants’ needs before they reach high levels of distress and fall into the freezing response. The freezing response is a biologically in-wired physiological reaction that occurs in the animal kingdom whenever an animal can’t fight or flee from a predator and is utterly helpless. This freezing response, in which the animal looks dead from the outside but is highly activated internally, is adaptive biologically because the animal has a greater likelihood of survival by appearing dead.

The freezing response in humans is called dissociation. When humans dissociate, they detach from their experience and feel numb. Dissociating provides relief from overwhelming, intense feelings of fear, shame, and pain. Unfortunately, when infants dissociate, the distressing feelings do not go away but become locked in the central nervous system, ready to be triggered by way of a conditioned response whenever there is a reminder internally (thoughts, feelings, memories) or externally (the environment) of the early trauma.

Although we are so accustomed to the early trauma feelings that intrude at a low level chronically in the form of mild tension and dullness that we accept this as normal, it is when the early trauma feelings are triggered and intrude at overwhelming levels of fear, shame, and pain, that we feel distressed and have difficulty functioning.

Stan, for example, a single, middle aged, accountant who prided himself on his strong work ethic and intelligence felt overwhelming shock and rage when he did not receive the promotion he believed he deserved and fell into an anxious depression. What he did not realize until counselling was that this event had triggered painful, intrusive feelings of shame he had experienced and dissociated in his infancy and early childhood. I explained that likely he had felt bad about himself whenever he had wanted nurture from his mother and she was unresponsive, or whenever his parents were angry or impatient with him. For a full description of Stan’s story, see the clinical case, Individual Experiencing Anxiety and Depression.

For another example, Dan, a married, 29 year old in the high tech industry, experienced a restless agitation and loneliness, particularly when he was alone in a hotel room at night while working out of town, which led to a crisis in his marriage. What he did not realize until therapy was that this situation triggered painful, intrusive feelings of helplessness likely related to being separated from his mother as an infant when she had been hospitalized for severe post partum depression. For a full description of Dan’s story, see the clinical case for Sexual Addiction Counselling.