Infants are born with survival drives to learn about the world, and to bond with their carers. They absorb information with their whole bodies, gathering sensory impressions and learning basic skills of responsiveness and movement. Physical and relational lessons learned in infancy inform every moment of our lives.
Infant nervous systems are not yet fully formed and lack the capacity to self-regulate. Infants depend on their carers to directly soothe their nervous systems and to teach by example how to soothe themselves and return to calm after an emotional or physical disturbance.
When all goes well, a carer (the mother or father, or another adult, or an older child) responds to a baby with loving eye contact, open delight in her explorations, concern and soothing for distress, and respect for her rhythms of connection and space. The baby learns with her whole body that she is successful at bonding, and her needs will be met. Her self is cradled in welcoming arms and nourished by loving reflections from the people around her.
Carers do not have to be perfect to provide secure attachment. A “good enough” carer attunes to the baby most of the time, and responds to attempts to repair the connection when attunement is disrupted.
Insecure attachment strategies
To a baby, lack of welcome or even a brief abandonment is a threat to survival. Experiments have consistently shown three different responses to care that is not “good enough”: avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment strategies. Attachment strategies are stable through a person’s life and deeply affect relationships and happiness.
If carers are consistently unresponsive but not otherwise threatening, the baby withdraws her confident expectation that her needs will be met. She learns to rely only on herself rather than reaching out for connection.
At first, babies cry for attention. If left alone for too long or too often without a response, they fall into silent resignation and despair. They might appear quietly well-behaved, at the cost of a huge wound to the spirit.
If carers are sometimes responsive and sometimes unreachable, the baby learns that care is dependent on certain behaviors, rather than being her birthright.
The growing child attunes to her carers, trying desperately to discern how to get care, rather than receiving the carers’ attunement. The behaviors she settles on are intermittently reinforced, since the carers are responding to forces outside the child’s control.
Sometimes carers are actively threatening, a source of terror as well as care. The baby’s nervous system is thrown into unresolvable conflict between the powerful need to flee, and the equally powerful need to move toward safety.
The baby might dissociate to contain the contradiction, a tearing dis-integration of consciousness from the body, with the wordless sense that this should not be happening, and the world is unutterably hostile and dangerous.
Intact need to connect
The drive to bond remains intact beneath insecure attachment strategies. It is possible to acquire “earned secure attachment” by processing negative early experiences and mindfully entering into a “good enough” relationship in the present. The relationship can be with an empathic friend, family member, or therapist who can provide a strong container for memories that come up.
Preverbal flashbacks can be triggered by conflict between the need to connect and the bone-deep memory of abandonment. Reaching out for support that feels safe, taking tiny risks and evaluating the results, and making a lot of space for difficult feelings can help move through the painful healing process.
Intensity from the past
Flashbacks to preverbal memories are intense, all-consuming, boundaryless. The body feeling might be raw terror, or blank detachment, or inconsolable despair. The world feels huge, overwhelming, unmanageable. There is a sense of fundamental helplessness, failure to connect, inability to reach safety. With all of itself, the body demands to be held, rescued, enfolded in care.
If you have felt that way before, it helps to gather a set of first-aid phrases and actions for when it happens again. Retreat under the covers, drink warm tea, call a reliable friend. Whatever helps you get through.
It can take the edge off preverbal flashbacks to recognize that intense feelings might belong to the past rather than the present. At first that might be easier once the storm has passed. With time, the intensity itself becomes a familiar cue, the way “always”, “never”, and “forever” are flashback markers.
When an extreme emotional experience does not obviously connect to the present and is difficult to describe in words, check inside if it might be old. The response might be a sense of easing, or a deep breath, or a feeling of rightness. The response might also include a sense of what is triggering in the present. The recognition gives a sliver of breathing room, a place to stand and witness.
Gentle steady physical contact tells the body in its own language that the nightmare ended and it is safe now to expand into life rather than contract against it. The touch can come from a trusted person, or a pet, or your own hand on belly or heart. Listen inside for what your body needs. It might be whispering, or loudly demanding.
Witness, find words
Witness and express your experience. You might start with sounds, like whimpering, and motions, like curling up small. Begin to find words for the edges of your experience, from the outside looking in. Keep describing, and checking with the wordlessness, and refining the description.
You might get images or impressions of a narrative behind the intense emotions. Consider accepting the narrative as your truth, even though we think “babies don’t remember” and “no one would do that to a baby.” Our personal truth does not need to be proven in a court of law, and babies do remember, and unfortunately some people perpetrate horrific physical, sexual, and emotional abuse on babies.
Protection and care
All babies invite and deserve protection, care, and love, including you. If that does not feel self-evidently true, it might be time to build secure attachment with yourself. Listen with kind attentiveness to your sensations, emotions, preferences, and needs, especially the ones that seem “unreasonable.” Move toward what feels nourishing and healing. Protect yourself fiercely from harm. You deserve attunement and connection.
Anais Salibian writes beautifully about how touch and presence help heal early trauma in Trauma Therapy with Rosen Method Bodywork.