Fear – the most primal emotion
The body is hard wired for survival and fear is one of its primal original instinctual programs, or dispositions in response to danger. This is necessary to protect us from injury, pain and suffering and death, and is operating instinctively before we are even able to process and understand what is going on. Instinctual programming is intelligent functioning built into the body and its systems, essentially the nervous system and the brain. We must be able to respond to danger.
Even though nature looks so tranquil and harmonious, it is often quite the opposite. A beautiful gazelle maybe grazing in the fields, munching on leaves, when something causes it to become alert, anxious, some sensation, or stimulus, often it is a smell that is the first indication, but it may be a sound, and its ears prick up and scan the surrounding area, the eyes also scanning for danger. The creature is in the first phase of its fear response – Anxiety!
The lioness creeps stealthily closer camouflaged by the tall golden reeds swaying in the wind, until there is the point of attack, the moment where she has to make her self visible and her intentions known. She steps forward forcefully and the sound alerts the gazelle, when the lioness leaps out the gazelle is already fleeing for its life in absolute terror. This is the next phase of the fear response – Terror!
A chase ensues, the gazelle weaves and dives and the lioness pursues, drawing closer and closer, she tries to trip the gazelle with her huge paw, the gazelle stumbles but regains his footing and somehow turns away. The next phase – Trauma! Maybe he gets caught and devoured, maybe he manages to get away. Eventually he stops running and tries to calm down and regain his breath and composure. His system is hardwired to embed the experience into the fabric of his brain’s instinctual re-activity.
The human experience is of course different to the animal. Firstly the most significant difference is in the capacity of memory, which on the one hand enhances learning and collective progress, but on the other hand means that trauma lives a long deep life in the psyche. The memory function is integrally connected to every part of the brain in order to perform its role, it must link all aspects of perception and communication. In addition, outwardly, most humans these days do not live directly in nature and are not exposed to wild beasts who want to eat your flesh, but actually in the cities there are similar dangers. Poverty, marginalization, abuse etc. fuels criminal activity and there are many many people lurking around looking for an opportunity to steal, attack, rape, kill. More acculturated and seemingly civilized barbarians lurk within many many homes, these people, conditioned by negative destructive violent patterns in their own childhood are acting out similar destructive patterns in front of their own children. A little child from the earliest age grows up watching mummy and daddy fighting, arguing, hitting, screaming, swearing. In some cases the aggression is directed at the child and children experience various degrees of physical, emotional, sexual abuse!
The child goes through the phases of Anxiety, Terror, Trauma, and the experience is of course a memorable one, but the memory of it is intensely disturbing, and so rather than remain in that traumatized state, the experience is repressed into the unconscious depths sufficiently far from immediate memory. This process of burying the experience and memory and repressing the associated emotions is all part of the next phase – Post Traumatic Stress.
The child cannot understand what is happening and cannot make sense of the strange confusing emotions it is feeling. These emotions are intense and painful, primarily fear, but also anger, sadness, powerlessness, and the child cannot live in that condition and so the memory of the experience is buried and the emotions suppressed and over time repressed – that is to say that instead of expressing it, saying something, or doing something about it, or talking to someone about it, they internalize it and get used to holding back those ‘negative’ emotions, and they are taught to be afraid to express anything about that, and they will be shamed if they do. Often an abusive parent will use shame as part of their emotionally abusive tactics. Many of the associated emotions can be suppressed and repressed but fear is too primal and physiological and is only partially repressed. For many it becomes a chronic sensation, feeling and emotion, so prevalent and pervasive that it is generally partially accepted as part of the operating system, recedes into the background as simply part of the personality, or who “I am”. Exaggerated out of all proportion it dominates feeling and thinking and casts premonitions and suspicions, and cripples attempts to express oneself, relate to people, be intimate and trusting and trustworthy.
A child may experience one or two such incidents, or may experience it all the time, virtually everyday, for years and years! In the latter situation the child’s development is severely affected and they will eventually settle into the next phase of the fear response which is a dual or split phase – on the one hand a Default Desensitized Condition of being numbed to their own repressed emotions and the emotions of others, and the Activated Dramatic Condition of the repressed volatile emotions being triggered and sometimes fully activated. But still unable to express any of it, the child experiences internally these implosions, reliving trauma, again and again. Depending on certain factors, most importantly the severity and extent of the abuse, but also Genetics, Environment, and the child’s innate capacity or inherent degree of consciousness, the child’s personality and self image will be twisted and warped.
As the abusive parent’s dominion and control decreases those repressed memories and emotions which were churning and simmering deep down inside, imploding in the depths, now begin to seek cracks, fissures, paths to the surface, and begin erupting awkwardly, sometimes violently outwardly. Eventually the child grows up and becomes a teen and experiences all the pressures of puberty and high school, and eventually the teen grows up and goes on to study or work, and eventually the adolescent becomes an adult, pseudo-independent and quasi-liberated… possibly moves out and then gets married and starts their own family. The next phase is more like a continuation of the previous split phase but in this case it is during the process of individuation where the emerging individual seeks to reconcile the split, seeks to heal and grow – Surface Level Anxiety punctuated with moments when the fear response is triggered and activated goes into overdrive and gets coupled with anger leading to Volcanic Implosion or Eruption! There are other kinds of trauma like physical injury and loss of loved ones, and it is not always from observing or experiencing abuse.
What is happening in the brain of someone who has been traumatized at a very young age? “
A few things happen and there are many factors that contribute to how the experience will affect the person, but essentially the fear response is distorted and exaggerated out of proportion, resulting in cascading chemical regimes released within the body, hormones designed to help us survive danger in the ‘wild’ course through the blood affecting the brain and the heart primarily a fright, preparing us for fight, or flight. The link to the pre-frontal cortex which would in a healthy brain regulate the fear response, has not been adequately developed and so the fear response, becomes a runaway fear response, with no sense of proportions and boundaries, and no ability to self regulate. Similarly the anger response, which is the power to stand up for one’s self, is suppressed and ultimately repressed.
The person cannot express their anger about the situation for various reasons, a violent abuser, or social expectations, but this repressed anger and dis-empowerment lives a deep life in the psyche and can emerge violently in the runaway fear scenario. The runaway fear scenario when activated exaggerates small or insignificant events or occurrences into very dramatic, intense, situations and thereby amplify any of the repressed emotions like anger and/or powerlessness, sadness or grief etc. A minor stress, like being late for something, or facing some kind of social situation, or similar may bring one into a heightened state of tension, in which presumed past or present grievances may suddenly become the central focus of the entire mind. People who suffer from such conditions already have unclear and distorted boundaries and lack of sense of proportion, and therefor prone to exaggerated responses, or over reactions, but when in a runaway fear situation, boundaries and proportions fade almost completely within the pounding intensity of the screeching howling roaring emotional eruption, and they become capable of harmful destructive behavior like violence, self cutting, suicidal acts etc.