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The Impact of Stress on Cognitive and Emotional Development: Outer Child Exercises Can Help

March 29, 2011 1 comment

Outer Child is fueled by stress, and has been developing since early childhood in reaction (sometimes over-reaction) to it.

Stress hormones can mobilize our physiological resources in a real emergency, but when triggered chronically – especially in children’s developing brains – depending on whether they are sustained and intense, can lead to cognitive deficits, learning difficulties, low self-esteem, memory gaps, heightened emotional sensitivity (resulting in depression or anxiety in adulthood) and repetitive outer child behaviors.

Stress hormones change brain structure

In Taming Your Outer Child, I explain how stress hormones (especially cortisol) can damage branches at the end of the nerves in the hippocampus, pruning the neural connections in the brain, changing brain structure and creating deficits in short term memory and cognitive functioning.

It is also well known that adults who had elevated cortisol levels during childhood (they were raised in orphanages or they were lab animals subjected to various forms of separation/abandonment trauma), on autopsy are found to have smaller Hippocampi and other brain structural differences.

Stress hormones create learning problems

These stress hormones decrease the supply of glucose to brain and prevent the brain from firing, so the brain can’t send nerve impulses involved in learning. They also interfere in the production of another neuro-chemical, glutamate. The way glutamate works is this: Learning can’t happen until a threshold of glutamate is reached in the brain. It is only when a massive wave of excitation occurs and nerves fire that learning occurs. Children raised under conditions of chronic stress develop deficits related to the fact that their brain cells don’t fire sufficiently to induce learning. This impedes both academic and social learning.

Stress hormones affect emotional quality of life

Stress hormones are known to cause the decline of growth hormone, and it is believed that this affects the vagus nerve in the brain, setting the emotional brain at a higher level of reactivity, creating patterns of mood instability into adulthood.

Stress hormones and separation/abandonment

Researchers report that that rat pups that were handled in the first few weeks of life produced lower stress hormones as adults[1]. Conversely, when they (also rhesus monkeys, cats, human children) are separated from their mothers (even briefly), the adult mammal will tend to:

1) have higher glucocorticoid stress hormones

2) have higher flight/flight reactivity

3) avoid novel situations

4) have trouble learning

5) have trouble forming secure attachments

6) be more prone to depression as adults

7) have higher emotional reactivity.

It’s easy to observe all seven of these points in adults who’ve had stressful abandonment histories.

The good news is that regardless of childhood stress’s impact on the brain, we can do things to help the brain regenerate – that is, grow new neurons (in some cases) and new connections between neurons, and well as repair damaged ones. This information is presented to motivate and inspire you to use the Outer Child exercise program (explained in Taming Your Outer Child) as a way of performing physical therapy for your ever-changing brain.

Outer Child and Childhood Abandonment

March 18, 2011 1 comment

Outer Child has a field day acting out the primal fears that seep out of your oldest abandonment wounds.

Our current abandonment fears are cumulative, reaching all the way back into our long lost childhoods. The abandonment wound is universal and consists of all of the little losses, disappointments, uncertainties, disconnections, and fears we experienced from birth onward (mostly forgotten or distorted by memory). Things happening in our current life can easily push our old emotional buttons – especially ones that got installed during our past losses and abandonments – and this can really get our Outer Child going! We may not remember how these buttons got installed, but we can usually locate the button pushers – those nimble fingers belonging to our own hands or someone else’s. The tools of the program (explained in Taming Your Outer Child) are designed to help us de-activate the buttons so we can curtail Outer from acting them out in ways that interfere in our lives.

Emotional Hot Buttons

The Outer Child program deals with feelings bubbling up in the here and now whose trigger buttons got installed during your earlier emotional experiences – especially past abandonment traumas both large and small. I spent many years researching and working with young children who were in the throes of primal abandonment scenarios ranging from the ordinary – Mommy had a new baby – to the extreme – a child was sent to a foster home. What I observed had stunning implications. These children perceived all loss, disconnection, disappointment (no matter how seemingly insignificant), as abandonment. In terms of the impact on children’s development – what mattered was the degree of stress and temperament of the child.

Grasping this insight helped me see how important it was for parents, teachers, therapists, and other adults to understand children’s susceptibility to abandonment trauma, how quickly they develop highly patterned Outer Child behaviors in response to it, and what adults can do to mitigate its traumatic impact.

Children feel diminished by all loss and disconnection whether or not they had any direct involvement in the traumatic event. For example, a little girl whose mommy has died can feel personally diminished – lose self-esteem – by such a loss. Here’s how: She may know (or hope) she did nothing at all to contribute to her mother’s death, but she doubts her self-worth none-the-less. Why would a death cause a child to doubt herself? Well for one thing she sees other children all have mothers. She also knows that there’s often a reason for things and she concludes that she’s simply not special enough to have one. She observes other mothers fusing over their children, laughing at their jokes, beaming over their accomplishments, baking cookies for the class on their birthdays, picking them up from school, haranguing them about their homework, inviting friends over for play dates. But this little girl doesn’t have her mother anymore. Her assumption is that she does not rate having what the other children have – a living, breathing mother of her own – because she has unconsciously concluded she’s not entitled to one.

Molly represents a less drastic example. Her abandonment fears kicked up at school:

“The one abandonment scene that stands out is that I wasn’t good at math. I was great at reading, but not math. The other kids would be busy dividing fractions, but I would get stuck and not know what to do. I felt there was something wrong with me, something missing. For me, at an early age, this math deficit triggered abandonment fear – I was terrified that I would fail at life and somehow be left behind. Of course, on some level, I knew this to be not true because I had supportive parents. But, even into adulthood, any new learning challenge sent me into abandonment fear. I felt inadequate and vulnerable and super-sensitive. New jobs are incredibly stressful. Fearing I’ll fail and be cast out any minute really held me back. I was an underachiever.”

Children feel personally diminished by all types of experiences that cause abandonment fear, but they acquire more rational ways of looking at themselves when their minds develop more fully. Eventually they learn to distinguish things that were beyond their control. They learn to place some of their relative strengths and weakness into better perspective.

“I didn’t make it on the baseball team, but I did well in just about everything else.”
“I wasn’t great at math, but I went on to become an editor at a newspaper.”

So why then, do their old abandonment scenarios still pack such a wallop? Well, that’s where the amygdala with its fear-conditioning and the hippocampus with its memory malfunctions come in (explained in Taming Your Outer Child). They’re why Molly, an intelligent person, kept reacting to a subliminal abandonment fear that she had long since rationalized intellectually. The amygdala doesn’t answer to rational thinking. Its job is to react instantly – before you’ve had time to use your intellect – to protect you from what it perceives as a potential threat to your survival. And your hippocampus which is supposed to provide context information that would otherwise help you realize that abandonment fear is in appropriate to the situation, is down for the count (due to stress hormones and other factors).

Any old trigger will do – meeting a group of people for the first time, being assigned a new work task – anything that arouses feelings of inadequacy that in the past made you feel susceptible to being left behind. Before you’ve had a chance to use that rational mind to make a more realistic assessment of your value, your amygdala has sounded its alarm, prompting your lower brain to go into fight flight or freeze mode – all automatic Outer Child defenses.

“I would be all prepared to make a great impression and then suddenly feel inhibited. I froze.”
“When I sense rejection, I get angry and go into fight mode.”

Molly continues:

“When I’d start a new job, my abandonment fear allowed my Outer Child to gain the upper hand. Outer’s defense was to try to make me look invisible. I guess it was a kind of freezing up. So, I’d avoid eye contact with anyone in authority, which hindered my peripheral vision. I’d routinely crashing into people’s desks, door jams – anything in my path. So much for keeping a low profile. Then Outer Me would try to cover up my accidents with all sorts of diversionary tactics, like laughing at myself when I’d knock someone over, so that people wouldn’t be able to tell how embarrassed I was or that I must surely be an imposter.”

To explore more about your childhood wounds, visit outerchild.net.

Charlie Sheen’s Outer Child is Speaking Out (way OUT)

Charlie Sheen’s Outer Child seems to be in a snit. It’s a sign of at least two of the following three things:

1. His Outer Child doesn’t like having to go through withdrawal from both drugs and his show.
2. His addiction is fighting his recovery and we are witnessing a relapse with virulent denial.
3. He’s having a manic episode, even if he never has been bi-polar before. Otherwise, where did his filters go? Had he really intended to make a Semitic reference? He seems out of control, with his Outer Child thrusting forward full throttle.

Outer Child is universal to all of us – it’s the part that self-sabotages. Outer can gain the upper hand when we least expect it, such as when we’re determined to stick to a diet, and Outer smuggles cookies to our room. Or we vowed not to lose our cool, and Outer swoops into the middle of our calm “discussion,” and starts shouting and bringing up grievances from ten years ago.

What exactly is Outer Child? The framework is simple. You have an Inner Child representing your most basic feelings and needs – the urgings of your soul. You have an Adult Self looking out for your Inner Child’s best interests and following your goals. And whatever you do that defeats your goals and frustrates the needs of your Inner Child, well, that’s your Outer Child – the part that acts OUT instead of acting responsibly – the part that interferes in your best laid plans.

When your Outer Child is OUT of control, it means that your Inner Child is too neglected and needy and your Adult Self is too weak. The antidote is to strengthen the Adult Self so that it (you) can take better care of your Inner Child’s feelings and desires in appropriate ways.

But this task is especially challenging for people who have addictions and compulsions. They need an exceptionally strong Adult Self to contend with the powerful impulses and urges constantly bombarding them. Someone in Charlie Sheen’s position faces the difficult task of becoming a Super Adult Self who must guide his own person to safety through a turbulent, tormenting sea of cravings and discomforts. If he’s in the midst of a manic episode, this first has to be quelled before he can hope to find the path.

One of the problems is that whether he wants it or not, Charlie gets a great deal of positive reinforcement for the behavioral escapades and verbal excesses. To wit: we can’t help but attend to the “reality show” entertainment that his antics provide. Most of us get a vicarious kick from his out spoken (to put it mildly), wayward Outer Child. Considering Charlie’s unconditional popularity and considerable financial resources, where is he supposed to get the motivation from to white-knuckle is way through treatment and recovery? What would motivate him to leave Shangri-La on his own recognizance and enter a communal boot camp, and or get on medication? And when he gets to the right setting, what’s he supposed to do for pleasure?

So here’s hoping he can find quiet moments amidst the mania and compelling media drama to look within and find that Strong, High Functioning, Guiding, Wise Adult Self – to help pull him through. http://www.amazon.com/Taming-Your-Outer-Child-Self -Defeating/dp/0345514483/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top