Trauma is an event that is so overwhelming that it exceeds a person’s ability to cope. This can happen in infancy. Unprocessed trauma as an infant causes lasting imbalances in a baby’s nervous system that inhibits the body’s natural ability to restore itself back to a place of homeostasis and health. The body’s survival system is based on the nervous system, which, in turn, affects a person’s hormones, immunity, and digestion. Having a balanced nervous system is critical for physical, mental, and emotional health.

The development of the nervous system, called neurodevelopment, begins in utero and continues throughout childhood. It is the primary job of the nervous system to keep a person alive. Attachment in childhood happens when a baby bonds to her mother’s stronger and more developed nervous system to help her survive the first few years of life.

Not only that, but a mother passes on her nervous system to her children while they are in utero and infancy. The patterns of your own nervous system were wired into your developing nervous system as a baby. As a baby, how you related to and experienced the world was through the lens of your mother’s nervous system. The nervous system is that important.

The brain develops from the bottom up. It starts in the brainstem or encephalic trunk, which takes information in from the body and passes it on to the emotion center in the midbrain/limbic system where sensations are interpreted and meaning is attached to them. That information is then sent to the brain cortex or logical thinking part of the brain, which will then determine what action the body needs to take based on the information given. In other words, the brain takes all this information coming from the body and into the brain stem, attaches meaning to it, and then sends it to the appropriate places in the brain to be processed.

At birth, the brain is unorganized. Over time, the brain is designed to develop in a healthy, natural, organized fashion for optimal health and development as each part of the brain learns how to communicate with all the other parts. As a baby grows and develops, she needs to learn how to move, learn, pay attention, and remember.

The brainstem is the part of the brain that develops first in an infant, along with the cerebellum. The brainstem includes the pons, which is the area of the brain that helps you survive things such as heat, cold, pain, hunger, and thirst.

The Development of the Nervous System

People underestimate the importance of early childhood when it comes to physical, mental, and emotional health in adulthood. It is in this period of life that a person will develop either a secure attachment style or an insecure attachment style. A person can begin to look at her very early beginnings of life to see where there may be injuries, or gaps, in her neurodevelopment – the development of the nervous system, including the brain.

A baby’s nervous system begins to develop in utero to keep the baby alive. This is when the very foundation is laid for an insecure or a secure attachment. The baby is connected to the mother’s body via the umbilical cord. In the womb, a baby will either sense a supportive environment or a toxic environment and then will adapt her system to what she is sensing. From this time forward, the baby will begin to develop surviving patterns based on coping mechanisms, habits, relationship development, energy levels, etc. The baby forms a strong memory through neurochemicals and hormones that get impressed in her brain and nervous system.

When babies are born, the only change the baby makes is she can now breathe on her own and digest her food. All of her systems are still developing. In fact, the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 29. It takes months before the baby is even aware that she is disconnected from the mother’s body. Even after birth, the baby’s nervous system still thinks it is connected to the mother’s body.

From birth to 2 months, the brain develops the medulla, cerebellum, and spinal cord develop. The lower brainstem section of the brain controls the basic life support functions of the body. The medulla controls breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and the sleep-wake cycle.

At this stage, the baby has natural reflexes, which are involuntary movements in response to stimulation. The most common reflexes are sucking and rooting. Reflexes are necessary for survival. Reflexes include a breathing reflex to bring in oxygen, and reflexes to maintain body temperature such as crying, shivering, tucking in legs to keep warm, and pushing away blankets when too hot. A baby will also have a sucking reflex that will cause her to suck at objects that touch her lips. A startle reflex, also called Moro reflex, can cause a baby to cry or try to move away in response to threats. She also has a rooting reflex causing her to turn toward any object that touches her cheek. She can also move her arms and legs, but not her full body. She can also respond to light.

In months 1-5, the pons develops in the brain stem. Reflexes are replaced with more voluntary movements called motor skills. The baby starts to track things in a left-to-right movement. She develops the strength to hold her head up. The baby responds to threatening sounds. Sensations of hot and cold, hunger, thirst, and pain develop. The baby begins to move her body when placed on her tummy. If the pons area of the brain is not developed in an organized way, sensory processing disorders can develop. This can show up later in life as overly physically aggressive, eating disorders, high-risk activities, and having a high tolerance for pain.

For the first 6-7 months of life, a baby picks up cues subconsciously from her mother’s facial expressions, the tension in her body, and the mother’s body movements. Even now, a baby believes she is still connected to her mother and that she is a different human being. This is the reason co-regulation is so important, especially in this period of time, because separation from her mother is very traumatic. This is the very foundation for a baby’s attachment style she will carry with her into adulthood. This is the time when the base of dysregulation is formed. By age two, a baby’s attachment style is well-formed.

From six to twelve months, the brain of a baby shifts significantly. Instead of basic survival, the baby will transition to learning and engaging with others. This is the midbrain stage of development. The baby can now sit alone without help. She begins to voluntarily move large muscle groups such as the arms, legs, head, and torso. The baby can rock back and forth and crawl on hands and knees. The Baby’s vision is more developed and has depth perception. Babies now learn how to read facial expressions and their own expressions reflect what they are thinking and feeling. It is at six months that the baby begins to learn that she is not physically connected to her mother.

Neurodevelopment Gaps

Attachment and learning go hand and hand. A baby’s physical health is designed to co-develop within a relationship, and the most important relationship a baby has for the first several years of their life is their mother. If a baby’s system does not develop in an organized, natural, and healthy way, there can be neurodevelopmental gaps resulting in an insecure attachment.

A Biology Stuck in a Freeze Response

If a baby’s needs are not met, she will feel it in her body, specifically in her nervous system. If she senses she is in danger, she will go into a high arousal state and will want to take some action to lower the stress level, perhaps to move away from something she sees as a threat. If she can’t move away or her movement for some reason is thwarted, she will experience trauma and go into a freeze response in order to shut off her discomfort. The trigger for the freeze response is always thwarted movement.

For example, if a baby is cold, she will cry to express her discomfort. If her mother is attuned to her, she will pick up the baby and warm her. Not only does this provide a sense of support and safety for the baby, but she will also connect with her mother’s physical warmth to regulate her own body temperature. This is an example of a mother’s nervous system regulating her baby’s. If, however, the mother is not meeting her baby’s needs and the baby continues to cry because she can not get warm, the baby will eventually stop crying and go into a freeze response to cut off the discomfort. The baby’s body is inhibited, blocked, and thwarted from getting what she needs, so she freezes. Collapses. Something is blocking the natural movement that the body wants to do, so it simply shuts down. This is the real trauma – being frozen. Not only does this block the threat, but also all the good, worthy and valuable things in life. It’s stuck in survival mode instead of thriving mode that makes a person be fully alive, energetic, free, and authentic.

Embodiment, the Key to Healing Trauma

A person who has an insecure pattern finds life extra difficult because trauma breeds more trauma due to an activated nervous system which is primed for more activation. To heal from childhood trauma, a person must start to repair the gaps caused by an insecure attachment. This is a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach. A top-down approach focuses on thoughts and brain activity. A bottom-up approach to healing gaps and injuries sustained in an insecure attachment pattern. It doesn’t start with higher-level thinking and mindset strategies, but bodywork, also called somatic work, to fill in the gaps and create a felt sense of support and safety for the body to have the necessary tools to reach beyond a person’s small world and expand it. It is to get out of the head and into the body.

Go gently. And be patient.

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Trauma lives in the body. To heal your past trauma, you need to heal your body. If you would like help in learning how to do that, I can help.

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I am a certified Mind Body Eating Psychology Coach and am currently studying to become a Biology of Trauma Provider. My goal when exhausted women ask, “Why am I so tired all the time?” is to help them explore their story to see what has happened in the past that is draining their energy today. In addition to coaching, blogging, reading, and studying, I am a professional trumpet player. I also enjoy exercising, cooking, gardening, calligraphy, and helping others achieve their goals.

Information in this post is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition.