The impact of early adversity and life narrative processes: the  refuge of story and facts….. (edited)

“Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books. But every story has its upsets. One day the sky turned dark. The winds blew and blew…. until everything that Morris knew had been scattered to the winds, even the words in his book.” William E. Joyce

My posts often reflect what I might be reading or engaging with at the time and sometimes similar topics and themes from different sources sort of coincide temporally. In a recent podcast, Lessons for the road of life, Dr Rick Hanson and his son, Forester, discuss five of their most important skills, techniques, practices and reflections for the long road of life. These are: getting on your own side, widening your view and considering the bigger picture, slowing down in order to grow the space between stimulus and response, taking in the good, and acknowledging the impact of childhood and the importance of creating a coherent life narrative of one’s childhood and how it has impacted one’s adult life and ways of responding and being, They suggest a few questions one can engage with:

What happened to you when you were a kid? What did you regulate out? What was the true nature of that child? Could you make some room for those qualities?

Meanwhile, I have been engaging with material related to the impact of childhood maltreatment and adversity on health, development and other areas of life both in childhood and adulthood and the importance of creating a Life Story Book for children who have experienced prolonged trauma and are in foster care or in the process of being adopted. So, in today’s post I’ll focus on the formative power of our childhood and a life narrative intervention mostly used in particular settings, but which ultimately could prove useful for everyone.

Prolonged adversity in childhood can result in the over activation of automatic responses, which in turn generate biases and affect how we see the world. For children who have experienced trauma and a lot of unpredictability the world might seem a frightening place. Often they may not have developed any true sense of safety and stability, which then colours the way they see the world, and also, creates difficulty in recognising others’ intentions and emotions. Among other things early adversity predisposes to hypervigilance because when we are threatened we activate brain regions that are involved in helping us prepare to fight or escape a situation. So depending on the automatic response our muscles might tense and our heart rate might decrease to help us process things, our pupils might dilate, and our senses might get heightened or our breathing might quicken and our heart might beat faster to increase blood flow to muscles, while adrenaline is released to increase metabolism. Alternatively, we might feel light headed and dizzy as sensations bypass the conscious brain, become unresponsive and numb. Frequent activation of these natural defense mechanisms can later lead to fast and impulsive responses rather than well-thought out actions. If someone has experienced adversity early in life they may more readily activate these threat responses, even in situations where they may not be appropriate. So, we may go into freeze, fight, flight or fright responses way more often than necessary. What was adaptive and life saving during trauma or when under some threat eventually undermines our health, agency and living.

Scientists and clinicians have observed that maltreatment in childhood is often associated with changes in our physiology and increased risk of problems later in life, such as depression anxiety, addictions, health issues, and so on. One way childhood maltreatment is thought to do this is by initially altering the child’s brain architecture in ways that help the child to survive in a hostile or neglectful environment. However, whilst these changes might be beneficial in the short term, they often confer long-term costs. Trauma and prolonged adversity also interfere with memory and (young) people who have experienced maltreatment and adversity may struggle to build a coherent narrative of their life, It is well known that trauma impacts the ways in which we remember and autobiographical memory might be one important domain in the brain that changes in the face of adversity. Neuroscientists have focused on what is termed as Overgeneral Memory (OGM) pattern and research has found that individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress, for instance, can show an OGM pattern similar to the pattern seen in maltreated youths. One idea is that OGM develops as a way to prevent the individual from becoming overwhelmed by negative memories. Research has shown that children who have experienced early adversity often recall the events of their own life (autobiographical memory) in a vague and overgeneral way that lacks detail.

For instance, a study was conducted that investigated the neural basis of autobiographical memory in children who had experienced adversity in the form of abuse and neglect. They examined the brain activation of young people who had experienced maltreatment, whilst they performed an autobiographical memory task in the fMRI brain scanner. The young people were asked to remember specific positive and negative events of their lives (e.g. their last birthday or a specific rainy day) with as much detail as they could. In this study it was found that children who had experienced early-life adversity differentially recruited regions in the autobiographical memory network during the recall of personal memories compared to their peers who had not experienced maltreatment. When recalling everyday positive memories, the maltreated children showed reduced activation of the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in successful memory recall and vividness of memories. In contrast, when recalling everyday negative memories, the maltreated children showed increased activation in the amygdala, the brain structure discussed earlier that is involved in threat or salience processing.

It then makes sense that making sense of our past and creating a coherent life narrative of our early experiences and attachment history is important in scaffolding our sense of self. A coherent sense of self is important when we navigate interactions and conflicts in adulthood.  In today’s post I will refer to a process and intervention that is often used when working with children and young people who have been separated from their birth parents because of abuse or neglect, who may be transitioning through foster families or are being adopted.  Concerning these more vulnerable children and young people it is important to help them remember and make sense of their past so as to help them develop a coherent life narrative that integrates both positive and negative experiences, emotions and strengths. Life story work is one technique that helps children access their past and then integrate it into the present and their sense of who they are and are becoming. It is mostly a social work intervention with children designed to recognise their past, present, and future. It is the process of helping children separated from their birth families to make sense of their early lives, come to terms with and reach some understanding of the reasons that may have led to their current situation, as well as, have access to their heritage and past. It should be an ongoing process as new understanding or healing occur and as life happens, and it usually includes making a Life Story Book.

In the manual Making History: A Social Worker’s Guide to Life Books, which is a guide for social workers on how to create a life story book it is suggested that a life story book can give a child a sense of history and prepare her / him for adoption, for transitioning into a new foster family or returning to their birth family. Also, life books can be used with children who are not facing these kinds of challenges, but who are experiencing other disruptions or changes like parents’ divorce, the death of a parent or sibling, serious illness in the family or moving to a new place or school. Actually, I think creating a life story book could benefit any child (and adult) and could be done within any family as a means of making meaning of experiences and changes, exploring emotions and responses or family dynamics, and of increasing their sense of belonging and confidence. Creating a Life Story Book can provide a sense of continuity of self and ground the child in its knowing of facts and exploration of reasons. The process also involves psychoeducation and helping the child / person increase self awareness. The participatory process and use of writing and artistic skills, if the child’s age allows this, further helps the child or adolescent develop a sense of control and mastery. Finally, as with all interventions one needs to be mindful of the many challenges of undertaking life story work with children and other groups of people.

More on the impacts of early adversity in the next post….

A psychological perspective

‘Above all is humanity, nothing else exceeds it.’ by the medieval Bengali poet Baru Chandidas

‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing…’ John Stuart Mill

Carl Jung wrote that “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” (1938). Pat Ogden refers to the explicit and implicit self and believes that in order to change procedural habits we need to take hold of our unconscious mind, the part with no words, and see what’s going on below. Whether we use the term shadow or we describe this implicit human experience as unintegrated trauma or events, disowned aspects of self and unmetabolized emotions, the fact is that everybody carries material that is less embodied and integrated into their conscious life, which ultimately encumbers living, impacts potential and choices and thwarts well-meant intentions. When there is a lot of unmetabolized trauma and emotions and when we cease to gently listen inwardly, the past has a stronger grip on us. In our shadow, if we want to call it that, or in layers of consciousness we have not accessed, lie not only our psychological defenses and forgotten and neglected pains, but also, our gifts and joys.

One could imagine the mind or the psyche as a mansion with many doors. The fewer the doors that are closed off the greater the flow of our inner experience and the less burdened we are from our past and cultural programming, which in turn increases the level of well being in all areas of life. The more bubbles of psychic experience that are unconscious or semi conscious and unprocessed, the more constriction we feel within, which influences the levels of freedom and ease we experience in our life. Inner spaciousness and peace grow as our capacity to relate to our denied or dissociated experiences grows. Our capacity for presence and living in the now also expand as we feel and know those places. One could also say we all have our different brand of bottle of repressed and oppressed qualities. Experiences and emotions that we need to slowly pour out.

If we imagine the self or our psychic reality as a container, the different bubbles could be said to represent repressed anger and other unmetabolized emotions like shame or fear, unprocessed trauma or loss, and so on. One bubble of cut off experience could be said to contain the Fatal Flaw or Secret. This term comes from Dr Jonice Webb, who has found through her work that most people live their lives harboring a secret, which they are not even fully aware of its exact nature and which results in their feeling and believing that they are unworthy, undeserving and flawed in some terrible way. She writes: “Legions of good people live through decades of their lives harboring a painful secret. They guard it as if their life depends on it, not realizing it’s not even real. It’s a secret that is buried deep inside them, surrounded and protected by a shield of shame. A secret that harms no one, but does great damage to themselves. A secret with immense power and endurance. It’s their Fatal Flaw…… This Fatal Flaw is a deep-seated, entrenched feeling/belief that you are somehow different from other people; that something is wrong with you. Your Fatal Flaw resides beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Outside of your awareness, it drives you to do things you don’t want to do and it also stops you from doing things you should do. Rooted in your childhood, it’s like a weed. Over time it grows. Bit by bit, drop by drop, it quietly, invisibly erodes away your happiness and well-being. All the while you are unaware. The power of your Fatal Flaw comes partially from the fact that it is unknown to you. You have likely never purposely put yours into words in your own mind. But if you listen, from time to time you may hear yourself expressing your Fatal Flaw internally to yourself or out loud to someone else.”

According to Jonice Webb The Fatal Flaw takes root in childhood and revolves around a deep rooted sense of difference and unworthiness, and it could be anything, but it is unique to each individual. It is a deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with oneself and that one is missing something that other people have. Often this leads to living life on the outside, feeling as if one doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. Its seeds are planted by messages people convey to us as children and later reinforced by other people’s button pressing, but actually it is neither fatal nor a flaw because it’s not even real. It’s powered only by our supercharged belief that it is both. She claims that the fatal flaw undermines our confidence to take risks, may makes us feel uncomfortable in social situations, keeps our relationships at a surface level, makes us question the meaning of our life. We can also become fearful of rejection, and a great deal of our personal power is constantly drained by this operating ‘secret’. Webb suggests ways to work with these fears born in the depths of our childhood using tools of awareness, our emotions, our intellect, and our words. Briefly, one needs to first acknowledge and accept it, and then and recognize that it’s not a real flaw, but a belief and a feeling; feel the emotions; identify its specific cause in childhood and consider how the seeds of our fatal flaw got planted; process it, make it visible; discuss it. We need to focus on the evidence that has been there all along that contradict the secret or the fatal flaw. So, we engage in a process of acceptance, feeling what is there, and an inner dialogue to unburden aspects of our psyche stuck in the past, in order to finally let go. As C. Jung wrote: “we don’t really heal anything, we simply let go,”

So, even when it not easy to know all our truth or open all the doors we watch for the openings knowing that life and conditioning has taken all of us, to one degree or another. To even be aware of it is something because it can be the beginning of dismantling old beliefs and purging stuck emotions, and with each experience or aspect of self that we integrate a greater sense of ease and inner expansion can take place. Dr Rick Hanson suggests mindfulness and meditative practices to build a sense of inner expansion and to foster self acceptance and integration of disowned aspects of our lived experience. In his book, Neurodharma (2020), he suggests that even after a few months of meditative practices we can develop greater top-down control over the amygdala, which is the region close to the center of our brain that is continually monitoring for anything that’s painful or threatening or perceived as such due to past learning and unprocessed traumas. He claims that people in mindfulness and stress reduction trainings also grow more tissue in their hippocampus that helps us learn from our past experiences. Our hippocampus is also the part of our brain that helps us make implicit experiences like the fatal flaw explicit. Activity in the hippocampus can calm down the amygdala, and it has been observed that after mindfulness training, people produce less cortisol when they’re challenged. Practically, this means that they have become more resilient. Rick Hanson  also, suggest that years of daily practice, lead to people having thicker layers of neural tissue in their prefrontal cortex, which supports processes such as planning and self-control, and more tissue in their insula, which is involved with self-awareness and empathy for others. Research suggests that many other areas of our brain involved with attention, body awareness, emotional regulation, and sense of self, also benefit from mindfulness practices, meditation and other activities. Positive changes in the brain have the potential to foster changes of mind, bringing greater resilience and well-being.

Trauma, moral relativism, philosophy and science lessons…..

“Simple stories when they are right actually give us only a small or partial explanation of the complex, big (ger) problem…. they undermine the complete stories, that could lead to change… if we need to build a just and peaceful world, we need to resist the simple stories…. undrstand the world in its rich, messy complexity” (Bonya Ahmed, TED talk)

During a course on counseling culturally diverse populations, almost a decade ago, our lecturer presented us with case studies to elicit responses on how one could go about providing counseling when working with culturally diverse populations, especially, in situations where our beliefs around issues like abuse, violence and oppression against women and children, for instance, clashes with what is acceptable or is sanctioned as right and as upholding traditional role structures within another culture. I was assigned a case where a teenage girl had been violently assaulted to the point of hospitalization by male members of her family. It was not an easy case because there were many threads to consider. My arguments included a human rights perspective, the need for empathic identification, and also, the need to discern the boundaries between respect for cultural diversity and tradition and a consideration of human rights and objective truths. I argued that there are experiences, which are objectively highly traumatizing and life degrading irrespectively of the sociocultural contexts in which they occur in, and that we need to also explore the potential consequences on people of certain practices and actions However, both the lecturer and many of my much younger colleagues (I was a mature student) supported the relativist view that what is moral and ethical depends on the culture and the individual.

This experience has arisen in my mind as I have been reading Stephen Law’s book, The Xmas Files: The Philosophy of Christmas (2011), in which among other things he discusses moral relativism. Relativism is the view that what’s true for one individual or culture may not necessarily be true for another and that there’s no absolute moral truth, just differing opinions, all of which are equally valid. There are references in the book on the growing influence of relativist thinking, particularly in schools and universities. Law discusses how, setting aside the fact that people can hold and justify diverse points of view we can still discern which point of view is objectively correct. Law also mentions that the relativist is correct that we should in many cases respect those whose opinions on moral issues differ from our own, acknowledge that we’re fallible and that our views may not always be right, and not assume that we have nothing to learn from other people; however, we can still embrace tolerance, open-mindedness and freedom without embracing moral relativism. He adds that relativism has, according to many thinkers, become the dominant ‘politically correct’ philosophy in the West. He cites the American academic Allan Bloom, who writes that ‘there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative’ and Marianne Talbot, a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford, who reports that her students ‘have been taught to think their opinion is no better than anyone else’s, that there is no truth, only truth-for-me. I come across this relativist view constantly – in exams, in discussion and in tutorials – and I find it frightening: to question it amounts, in the eyes of the young, to the belief that it is permissible to impose your views on others.’

Law also warns against ‘muddling relativism and liberalism’ and of the dangers of authoritarianism in education. He cites Graham Haydon, a lecturer in philosophy of education, who also warns of the perils of getting children to adopt an attitude of deference to authority and tradition as a remedy perhaps to moral relativism:

“It still must be said forcefully that accepting uncritically what someone tells you because they are seen to be in authority is not a good thing … Doing what is right cannot be a matter of doing what one is told. Schools must produce people who are able to think for themselves what is right..…   Any pupil who is being taught to think ought to be asking such questions. And the same pupil ought to see that ‘Because I say so’ is not an acceptable answer. Nor is ‘because these are the values of your society.’ So, it seems to me that rather than adopting a relativist approach, which suggests that all moral points of view are equally true or a rigid, authoritarian approach that discourages questioning, a more empowering approach might be to encourage people from a young age to engage in working out what those objective moral facts are.

This would probably require a different kind of education where students would be encouraged from a young age to engage in philosophical and moral questions. Reading philosophy and evaluating ideas could make students both aware of a variety of belief systems, and also, more critical and able to evaluate ideas and beliefs and see what works. In an interview Law said: “I’ve always been struck by how philosophically minded children are….They ask questions and they get an answer, and behind that answer they find another question to ask, and it doesn’t take long before they’re starting to question some of our most basic and fundamental beliefs. If you repeatedly ask ‘Why?’, it’s not long before you’re really hitting philosophical bedrock.” So, encouraging children and young people to engage in philosophy is one way of getting them to think critically and independently about the fundamental cultural, moral and religious beliefs they bring into the classroom, which in turn can help raise autonomous critical thinkers that can also rely on their own intellects.

Speaking of education and raising more autonomous and critical thinkers, also brings forward the importance of fostering a love for science and learning in all children. Alice Roberts says: “I sincerely believe that learning is something that most people genuinely do enjoy. It’s a basic human characteristic. If you go into primary schools, you can see just how enthusiastic the kids are about just about everything – how excited they are with each new discovery. If they get turned off by the time they are taking their GCSEs – and that seems to happen to a worryingly large number of them – then it’s almost certainly because of something we are or aren’t doing in schools.” Meanwhile, I have been watching Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght’s Christmas science and anatomy lectures about human evolution, our human origins, what makes humans human and what makes every person a unique individual, and the BBC series with Alice Roberts, The Incredible Human Journey.

Sharing a few links below:    &