Unscrambling my mental muddle-mysteries – 6

What I have learnt about infant trauma

The research of Doctors Kanwaljeet J S Anand and Paul R Hickey (photos below) which was briefly outlined in my previous post was followed by an outpouring of personal stories, medical and psychological research reports, public media articles, books, and remedial therapies. It was certainly and clearly established that babies
(1) do feel pain,
(2) remember it lifelong in their somatic or subconscious memory, and
(3) can continue to be affected by it.

Dr K Anand

These findings also underlined what some had already recognised: that our brain records traumatic experiences in two ways: verbally (or consciously), and non-verbally (unconsciously) or pre-verbally – so from before and after birth and not just from the start of our “aware” or “verbal” memory years – the years when we can express ourselves verbally and recollect much of our past.

Dr Paul Hickey

Both kinds of memory can affect us, the pre-verbal memories quite often in ways we cannot trace to any particular event or experience that we can recall. I have on file articles and reports about this by leading child psychologists and psychiatrists of the past and present, including Drs David B Chamberlain, Terry Monell, Louis Tinnin, Bessel Vander Kolk, and Donald Winnicott, as well as informative web-based material from therapy schools including (from the USA) Different Dream and Intensive Trauma Therapy.

The symptoms listed on several of the therapy websites and gleaned from the 50 or so individuals who posted to Facebook’s confidential Pyloric Stenosis groups about their experiences form quite a list, and I found I could tick many of the symptoms mentioned. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is very individual and everyone with any degree of PTSD will have their own list of symptoms.

Here is a list of many of the possible symptoms of PTSD –

Disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the event
Mental or physical reactions to trauma-related cues – situations, words, people
Anxiety and depression
Efforts to avoid trauma-related situations – scar shame
Nervous problems – stuttering, tics
Increased fight-or-flight response
Hypersensitivity to criticism
Difficulties in the mother-child relationship
Social withdrawal – insecurity
Self-consciousness
Greater sensitivity to stress
Appearing overwhelmed
Keeping conversation at surface level
Mistrust of others, esp. those in authority
Increased avoidance of confrontation
Appear cold / distant
Controlling behaviour
“Raise their guard” / protect themselves
Increased defensiveness
Require more downtime
Avoid doing certain things
Self-harming
Destructive impulses
Suicidal thoughts
Automatic obedience
Emetophobia (fear of vomiting)

Our nervous system, including the vagus nerve (which links and affects our brain and gut) is affected by lack of interaction; the effect of prolonged maternal separation from a newborn infant being a clear example.

Medical training occurs in a setting of considerable stress and anxiety, but students have long and often been drilled to work with the stated importance of not feeling, showing, or admitting their feelings: what we (in lay circles) call maintaining “a stiff upper lip”. This schooling as well as medical people’s scientific training have no doubt helped to maintain the mantra that babies do not feel or remember pain, including surgery and maternal separation.

As mentioned, PTSD comes in countless forms and degrees, and I believe I have struggled with a mild form of it throughout my life. Although never completely overcome, especially since the year 2007 I have received considerable healing by –

– networking with others who are on the same road,
– learning from online resources,
– my wife’s support and love,
– a growing self-understanding,
– addressing and overcoming identified links with anxiety,
– much positive life experience and affirmation,
– recognising God’s abundant goodness in my life, which others may express as “having a positive attitude”.