Infant trauma discharge and recovery
See also the infant trauma case study.
It’s impossible to know how many American infants sustain emotional trauma at birth or in the weeks thereafter. Effects may be barely detectable or pronounced—as emotional, cognitive, or vegetative dysfunction. The traumatizing incident itself may be unnoticeable, and yet the impact can be severe. Sadly, even when incident and impact are blatant, mainstream medicine offers no recourse to restore normal functioning. The solution is a detailed model of behavior mechanics and our perfectly designed trauma healing mechanism.
What is emotional trauma? Medically speaking, the term refers to an acute stress response (“fight or flight”) induced by harm or threat. Once traumatized, the human organism exhibits two distinct strategies for coping with trauma—repression and recovery. Each entails a sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and behavior component. First, if the emotions and memories engendered by trauma are intolerable, then both must be repressed, i.e. concealed and avoided. The SNS sustains the stress response indefinitely, deadening the body with chronic muscle tension, which in turn dampens experience of both painful and enjoyable emotions. (Termed “armor” in Western bioenergetic medicine, chronic tension actually contains blocked emotion.) The obvious drawbacks are that 1) one lives with chronic stress or anxiety, and 2) systemic stress response is biologically draining and injurious. Meanwhile, memories of trauma must also be concealed because they provoke intolerable emotions. Key behaviors become dysfunctional in order to prevent the otherwise automatic healing process that leads to memory recall. Self-destructive behavior and nervous system adaptations occur involuntarily, at any age that trauma is sustained.
The second option for coping with trauma is recovery, which requires that the subject feel his or her painful emotions. Contact with painful feeling triggers our trauma healing function—the SNS discharge mechanism—which is specially designed to relax a stress response resulting from emotional or physical trauma. However, before one can contact the feeling directly, the feeling must be tolerable. If painful emotion is tolerable, or when it becomes tolerable via intervention, the discharge mechanism deploys automatically; one contacts the emotion, feels it distinctly, and expresses it with deep relief (discharge). Then, when the stress response relaxes, one is no longer traumatized. Also, satisfactory trauma discharge removes the emotional charge from the psychological memory, thereby neutralizing the memory, which is then ignored or forgotten; suffering ends.
If trauma is overwhelming and must be repressed, intervention becomes necessary to healing. Proper intervention renders the trauma tolerable, at any age. The discharge mechanism then deploys automatically, like any other healing response.
People can be overwhelmed by trauma at any age. In infancy, however, the undeveloped organism is especially vulnerable because it cannot defend against injurious stimuli. A seemingly minor incident can profoundly impact the young nervous system. For example, a hostile glance from a careless adult—brushed off by another adult—may be formative ocular trauma for a days-old infant. Ocular, oral, and pelvic trauma are all common, leading to characteristic symptom formation for those areas. Ocular trauma in particular can freeze centers of the brain in a deep stress response that retards respiration, energy level, emotional expression, and cognitive faculties. The telltale indication is dimmed eye contact and alertness, which may be very subtle. For a century, Western medical science has noted a correlation between early ocular trauma and schizophrenia, epilepsy, bipolarism, ADHD, and other neurologic and neurotic disorders. In other words, without trauma discharge, brain blockage and systemic stress response induced in infancy can persist for life.
Dysfunctional behavior may also appear in infancy. Hence, infant trauma may manifest in either behavior or bodily symptoms, usually both. The infant may appear under or overly emotional. There may be an overall lack of joy or expression, or a tendency toward excessive crying or fussing. The infant might be described as generally grumpy, sad, or timid. He or she may refuse normal interaction, cling desperately, or appear strangely unresponsive. In more obvious cases, the body is rigid with muscle tension. Unfortunate adult reactions range from pragmatic (“there’s nothing more we can do”), to naive (“don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it”), to esoteric (“your baby has not yet arrived on the planet”). All such assessments are incorrect. Disturbances are common, but they should not be presumed natural or incurable.
As a traumatized infant ages, interaction with the world grows more complex, requiring that defensive behavior patterns develop proportionate complexity. Emotional problems are compounded by daily trauma or deprivation; the core trauma becomes less accessible for discharge and recovery. Even as a toddler, a dysfunctional child will need prolonged psychotherapy. When this person reaches adulthood, his or her behavior may be so convoluted that one would never guess the childhood root of the problem. For example, an infant who cannot engage in satisfying eye contact or nursing—vital channels of emotional connection—will experience predictable hardship when building intimate relationships in adulthood. In other words, the infant does not simply “grow out of it.” Defenses evolve as behavior evolves in general.
Infancy is the only stage of life wherein emotional trauma access and discharge are uncomplicated and readily tolerated. In child or adult psychotherapy, the subject’s behavior defenses resist healthy interaction and expression. This disadvantage does not exist for infants because their defenses are as yet undeveloped. Naturally, if early life trauma cannot be avoided, then it should be expelled during the window of infancy—in one or two SNS discharge therapy sessions.
On the other hand, infants present a special challenge because their minds cannot be instructed to notice emotions. Contact with emotion is essential, to trigger the SNS discharge mechanism. Procedures other than talking must connect the infant’s organism with its own, overwhelming feelings. A few medical doctor/psychotherapists accomplish this feat through meaningful eye contact. As the infant reaches out for deeper eye contact than what is usually available from parents, ocular deadening is overcome and the organism feels its emotions; discharge is triggered. However, this procedure is limited by the infant’s age, attention span, specific symptoms, and the doctor’s capacity for subtle connection. Also, such doctors are scarce who understand the biology in question.
Given its detailed knowledge of behavior mechanics, the Arneson Method of Guided Relaxation is not limited by the factors above. In other modalities, contact with emotion is incorrectly presumed to require conscious awareness. Hence (even in the eye contact procedure above), awareness is captured and focused via talking or guided body activity—impossibilities for a debilitated, weeks-old infant. Instead, in the Arneson Method, the practitioner focuses his attention on 1) the infant’s overall emotional state and 2) the locus of central nervous system blockage. A mysterious aspect of emotional connection, this non-invasive contact from outside the organism effects identical, internal connection with self and feelings. The infant’s attention need not be engaged in the least, yet his or her organism is afforded contact with otherwise inaccessible trauma. Thus supported by the practitioner, the infant can tolerate the trauma; discharge occurs automatically. (The same procedure is used for guided relaxation in adults, with the effect of deep relaxation in stressed and distracted clients.) The infant may rage and cry at length, but eventually needs comforting from the mother, who sits with her infant throughout the session. After trauma is discharged, the infant either falls asleep from exhaustion, or suddenly brightens with well-deserved joy. When one witnesses the sheer volume of blocked emotion released from an infant’s body, one feels relieved that that pain did not remain inside to mold the child’s basic perception of life.
Two SNS discharge sessions are recommended for most infants, to be thorough, but most of the trauma is unloaded in the first session. Infant clients may be four weeks to six months old, with slightly older clients accepted experimentally. If parents or practitioners have any reason to suspect trauma, with or without an obvious cause, they should schedule an appointment as soon as possible.
As with perhaps every other malady, the human organism is naturally equipped to heal emotional and physical trauma, at any age. However, although early life trauma is prevalent, the simple remedy eludes practitioners because mainstream medicine does not recognize the complex role of behavior in biological self-regulation. Like any other, behavior is a body system that can be supported with specialized procedures, for profound biological benefits.