Posts Tagged ‘panic’

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.

Good Riddance to Separation Anxiety!

October 13, 2010 1 comment

Someone wrote in and asked, “Is separation anxiety related to abandonment?”

“Oh yes,” I resounded. Separation anxiety is the basis for all emotional distress – anxiety, depression, insecurity-in-relationships, fear-of-loss. Abandonment feelings trigger separation anxiety and separation anxiety trigger abandonment feelings.

Let’s say you walk into a restaurant with your friends and you suddenly see your husband sitting at a table with another woman. Your heart starts to pound as if you had just seen as bear! This “panic” is separation anxiety. Or let’s say that you’re alone because you just can’t seem to find someone to love. You’re beginning to give up hope. You feel this constant malaise, an energy-drain, sometimes jittery in the morning, on-edge during the day, maybe even downright unhappy. This “depression” is separation anxiety.

Or maybe there are layoffs at work. You’re worried you’re next. You’ve become very sensitive to any nuance of rejection or criticism from the higher ups. These “paranoid” feelings are separation anxiety.

The antidote: Use these experiences to practice becoming a “separate person.” Once you find the internal switch (an adult switch) that regulates your separation anxiety, you can strengthen your emotional self-reliance. You gain personal power over feeling abandoned, alone, afraid, even under stressful circumstances.

To be human is to feel these things. But to be adult is to accept your humanness while at the same time accepting that you are in fact SEPARATE. The old adage about “coming into the world alone and going out alone” may sound obvious, but it attempts to break our denial and therefore is extremely meaningful. The adage reflects that many adults have made this discovery before us and have made a special point of sharing this wisdom – because they know that we are in denial – that we protest its simple reality. They know the acceptance of our separateness is the basis becoming a true adult.

Separation anxiety is a throwback to childhood when we knew we’d die unless someone nurtured our needs. This life-and-death-fear gets triggered by any perception of abandonment within our adult relationships. But once triggered, this fear challenges us to find the adult switch – the reality switch – the one that reminds us that we can stand on our own two feet. We learn to manage the fear by facing rather than fighting our separateness. Protesting our separateness keeps us in the panic and anxiety. The task is to face the “worst case scenario” (the realization of that we are each emotionally alone) and then to realize that we can take care of ourselves. This acceptance must be made, not begrudgingly, but wholeheartedly.

Once we realize that as adults we are responsible for meeting our own emotional needs and not the person we are obsessing about, we begin to take back control of our lives. Incidentally, this new-found power also dramatically changes the dynamic in our relationship, often turning the tables to our advantage. We lose our neediness and become mysteriously self-sufficient.

An essential point here is that separation anxiety is a form of protest. It is a reaction to not-accepting the existential reality of our separateness. Any threat to our primary relationship makes us anxious the same way little children feel anxious when they can’t find their mommies: the world looms lonely and scary.

The abandonment feelings triggered when our jobs, our lives, or our plans go awry – are just feelings, not facts. The reality is that adults cannot be abandoned, because they are capable of taking care of themselves. The only real abandonment in adulthood is self-abandonment. Believing ourselves to be helplessly dependent upon someone contributes to abandoning ourselves. Self-abandonment occurs when we momentarily forget that we are capable of self-care.

Self-abandonment occurs when we as adults blame ourselves for being left by someone we love, and then we compound it by blaming ourselves for becoming so emotional– for feeling so desperate. All of this leads to self-abandonment. And it is this self abandonment that leads to the loss of self-esteem which is cornerstone of abandonment’s severe depression.

Let’s say that we stay busy, have a million routines, and sustain close relationships with our loved ones. These are not bad things. In fact, they are good things, even though an underlying motive is to stave off separation anxiety. When things are going smoothly there’s no incentive to find that adult switch and learn to practice becoming a separate person. So we can become complacent…and dependent…even on our routines!

Those of us whose separation anxiety has been triggered by loss or disappointment are the lucky ones – because we get to develop emotional self-reliance – and we’re better for it.

The More They Hurt You the More They Hook You

October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Why is that? Why is it that the more they hurt you, the deeper in goes the hook?

It’s a demoralizing dilemma to be in. A lot of you wrote about it this week. One person sent this message: “I feel like a fool. I should hate him [her husband] for all of the sneaking around with ___ [the other woman], but all I want is to lie next to him and have him put his arms around me. I keep begging him to stay, not to leave me. I’ve become pathetic. I don’t blame him for not loving me”

Another woman was beginning to lose interest in her boyfriend, that is, until he became a no show on Friday night. The next day, she still hadn’t heard from him and his phone was turned off. She went into a panic that could only be quashed if he called.

Eventually he did call, told her he’d call her again that evening, but didn’t follow through. She went back into panic. Now she imagines that she is madly in love with him, that she doesn’t care about what a louse he’s been, she wants him and only him.

A man writes that he suspects his wife of having affairs. She flirts outrageously with other men right in front of him, avoids spending time with him, and doesn’t like having sex (with him), and seems to only care about her own needs. “I hate to grovel for her attention,” he explains, “and if I do try to talk to her about our relationship, she becomes angry and accusatory.”

Yes, it’s demoralizing to be in the “emotional beggar” role. But it doesn’t mean you’re a weak person. It just means you’re human. It could happen to almost anyone, given certain conditions. And it takes tremendous strength and insight to get out of it.

Another young man says his girlfriend has cheated on him more times than he can count, and she always comes back, swearing she’ll never do it again. She’s hurt him so many times, he’s tried to break up with her, and has dated many nice women in between, but the only one he obsesses about, the only one he wants is her. He’s hooked. He’s hooked by the pain she has caused.

I’ve already written about this– that when pain is introduced when you’re forming an attachment, it strengthens the attachment. I mentioned that when the researcher accidentally stepped on the toe of the duck, the duck imprinted him stronger than the other ducks. I also mentioned that fraternities inflict pain in their “hazing” to make the new “pledges” more loyal and bonded to the fraternity.

Here’s a little more explanation. The Zagarnic effect shows that the more problematic a situation is, the more enduring its impact upon your motivation. The study gave problem-solving tests to two groups. The control group had an easy-to-solve problem; the other group was given a problem that couldn’t be solved within the time-limit. Researchers went back to the two groups many years later. The ones who couldn’t solve the problem still remembered what it was about, but the control group had forgotten all about it.

When someone causes you to feel pain, the mammalian part of the brain (it is unconscious) creates an impression of that person so that it can warn you (with stress signals) to proceed with extreme caution during your next contact with him. This extra arousal from your autonomic nervous system gets confused with “being excited.” It arouses your “fight or flight” response, which gears you up for “competitive mode,” and the challenge holds your interest.

Also, someone who arouses those old familiar insecurity feelings reminds your mammalian brain of old feelings you had as a child when you were trying to gain your parent’s attention or acceptance, and this creates a kind of special arousal that hooks you in – and you find yourself “groveling.”
Regardless of the reason, if you find yourself in this position, first know that you are not alone. The best among us have probably been in this position. The key is to learn take back control of your life.

You are not your mammalian brain – it’s just a powerful part of your biological being. The antidote is to take 100% responsibility for your emotional needs, stop looking to your partner to take away the pain that he or she caused in the first place. It’s your job to set your life right.

Just don’t underestimate the strength it takes. And don’t judge anyone who is caught up in this. This is all about being human and learning not to be ruled by your addictive emotions – by your primitive brain.