Friday, May 11, 2012

Learning to Comfort and Soothe

In human infants and children, the ability to comfort oneself is learned through extensive experiences of healthy "bonding" with one's caregiver/s from early on. Healthy bonding requires long periods of holding, cuddling, mutual gazing and adoration between child and caregiver/s, and that the child is kept safe and protected from abusive or violent experiences, especially in the family. Early emotional neglect, childhood abuse and/or the unavailability of reliable soothing in early childhood, which can be due to many causes, such as illness in the caregivers, can have dire consequences when the child grows into adulthood.

We now know that such safety and bonding are necessary for the infant's optimal brain development, which results in the child's ultimate ability to learn how to comfort him/herself. A child that grows up unsafe, and/or without this "bonding and holding" will be vulnerable to experiencing repeated unnecessary alerts set off by the "survival" (hind) brain throughout their lifespan; signals that survival is threatened even when it isn't. These signals shut down optimal functioning of the "human" (thinking) brain, leading to difficulties in word retrieval, interpersonal skills, and concentration when such skills may be most needed. When an adult can't naturally self-soothe, s/he may become dependent on tension-reducing activities that can appear self-destructive, but in actuality are desperate attempts to calm the body down, some by forcing a flood of endorphins. Such tension-reducing activities include smoking, drinking, self-harm, compulsive gambling, overeating, purging, self-starvation, and sexually risky behaviour. Compare this to people who grow up safe with loving and supportive caregivers, who are able to self-soothe with little effort as adults because the learning is deeply embodied from infancy.

The combination of repeatedly experiencing anxiety in situations that aren't actually dangerous, with a compromised ability to calm oneself when such anxiety does occur, also makes it more difficult to fall asleep at night or to get a full regenerative experience from sleep. Having difficulty soothing oneself can also mean having difficulty taking in comfort from others, even those who are trying to be kind and supportive. This can cause problems in one's most intimate relationships.

All of these difficulties fall under the psychological category of "poor affect regulation," which understandably often results in a tendency toward the kind of harmful attempts at tension reduction described above. Standard forms of “talk therapy” that do not address the physiological shutdown caused by an overactive survival response are unlikely to be effective, because the client will spend a lot of time feeling unsafe. When feeling unsafe, the talking (‘human”) brain is not working adequately enough to integrate verbal interventions. Therapeutic approaches that focus on analysing one's thought patterns are called “top down” therapy – because they address the “higher” brain functions while ignoring the lower brain functions, such as survival reactions.

There are a number of psychotherapeutic approaches that work from the “bottom up.” These are especially effective for those suffering from the effects of "poor affect regulation." Many of the techniques have been integrated into PSI (PsychoSomatic Integration) Therapy, and are taught to counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists to help them learn to address these kinds of problems more effectively with their clients.

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