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Switched On

November 3, 2019

As human beings, we are wired to need human connections to feel well, alive, have a sense of joy and be curious in the world we live in. 

Fulfilling human connections help us feel loved, wanted, cared for, that we belong and are supported when in need. As adults, if we are well adjusted, we will often know when we need help, and how to reach out to enable ourselves to feel better. This may be as simple as noticing I feel tired, and being able to take a moment to rest. 

Sometimes, we aren’t able to reach out for this help. Maybe, not even know that we need help at all. Not even know that I feel afraid, or deeply exhausted, or that I’m immensely angry. 

Instead of feeling what I’m feeling, I translate my feeling into something else, and get into a place where I’m deeply upset with someone close to me for what (to them) would be a minor event, or having a confrontation with a stranger on the tube for not getting out of my way. Namely, I’m triggered into an emotional response that relates more to something that might have happened to me in the past, or more correctly, to a need that was left unmet when I was a baby or child, that as an adult, I am no longer even aware of. It’s out of my conscious awareness. 

Babies, unlike adults, are completely helpless and vulnerable to the world around them. If hungry or scared, they rely 100% on their carer to attend to them, to feed them, to cuddle them and help them feel secure. This applies to young children, and even, into young adulthood. How responsive is my environment to meeting my need, determines how secure I feel in my world. 

This may be sounding a little cryptic. Or maybe an oversimplification of an immensely complex subject. 

What I’m struck by, is how research, particularly neuroscience, has allowed us to have empirical evidence into the impact of healthy human connections, ie, relationships that enable us into being our best selves, to heal and repair, and relationships that leave us switched off. Not just metaphorically switched off from feeling something nourishing, even something painful, but literally, our genes switch off the parts of our brain that feels joy and love. 

In epigenetics, methylation is the process whereby gene function and expression is modified, and this is not exclusive to you, but can be something you inherited. So we don’t just inherit a set of genes, but we can end up with sleeping genes that then impact how we function in the world. 

An example, let’s say my mother as an infant did not have a loving, responsive mother, who worked to meet her baby’s needs, or as a child, she was reprimanded for crying, repeatedly punished if she expressed her anger. To survive, she adjusts her behaviour to meet her environment, and her brain helps her by forgetting her unmet need. Now, if she’s scared, she might frantically tidy to calm herself down. She might eat to swallow down her rage. This is an adult just getting on with life’s challenges as best as she can. These are her coping strategies, left unchecked since she’s been a child, unable to do much else. 

This isn’t just a behavioural response. Her nervous system has also learned to cope, to translate her needs and her world in this unique way. Her genes have also taken note, and politely switched off the parts of her brain that is nourished with playful curiosity, true intimacy, with enabling human connections. 

As an adult, as a mother herself, she projects her fear onto her baby. She may become overly anxious in her responses. If baby cries, she panics. If her young child is angry, she panics. Maybe, in time, she snaps and punishes them like she was punished. Or maybe she is scared, and finds other ways to quell her angry toddler with sweets, presents, and other momentary distractions. 

Her baby, toddler, young child grow up in their mother’s world. The old wives tale of a nervous mother raising a nervous baby, according to epigenetic, rings true. 

It’s not all doom and gloom.

The research also shows how intervention, say psychotherapy, can rewire us, not just to feel and behave differently, but to actually wake those dormant genes that switched off with developmental trauma (the baby not attended to, or child growing up tiptoeing around her father’s anger). I’m purposely not tackling examples of physical abuse or physical abandonment, and focus on emotional abuse and the impact of an emotionally unavailable primary carer, because again, research has shown the impact of the latter is as damaging as the former. 

Back to the good news. 

Research shows that being able to access our needs, maybe even gain emotional awareness so we know what we are really feeling, then to be able to put words to our true feelings, calms us. Calms our nervous system, the part of our brain that might have been triggered because it has a sense memory of our deep anger, fear and the sadness of not having been taken care of as as a child. 

As an adult, when we are able to recognise,be with, hold and care for our younger, wounded child, then we can begin to repair. 

The therapist, in these cases, may be the first person who is allowed a glimpse into my deepest fears, to meet my raging toddler self, to help me learn that expressing my need does not make me a ‘cry baby’, or if I’m a man, does not mean that I’m weak and needy. 

The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness, in my opinion, is a major barrier. The idea of getting help when we are not diagnose with a mental illness still seems strange to the majority. In my culture, as in the family and environment I was raised in, those who are mentally ill need to get treated, otherwise, you’re OK and you just get on with life. Maybe why, I met many clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, in Middle Eastern circles, but not so much psychotherapists and art therapists. It’s clearer, cleaner and easier to Other those with mental illness, than to accept most of us can do with attending to unmet needs. 

Truth is, the majority of us have our unique ways of dealing with our world, which would fall under some neurotic pattern of being. We can still function as ‘normal’ individuals in society. I can eat whenever I am distressed, or stonewall my wife when I’m angry with her, which she in turn can manage by avoiding conflict… 

And yet, if you’re in a position to invest in yourself, to do the work in a therapeutic space- not just self help books!- to heal yourself, then it wouldn’t be just you potentially living in a brighter world with those around you, but you’d also pave a path for future generations, to help those you love to switch on and into a better world.

————

I’m clearly not a scientist, but am sharing the above as new learning, four weeks into a therapy training course. I’m struck by the evidence that shows how effective therapy, and some other mindfulness type work, not just in profound individual change, but beyond ourselves. How our parents’ life experience impacts us, and more, how we are able to repair not just ourselves but generations to come. 

One Comment
  1. I can relate to the parenting bit at the end. I’m in therapy myself and one of the first things I noticed was how the way I was parented is unintentionally influencing the way I parent. It’s nice to make changes to this but it can feel a long, slow journey sometimes.

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