Allan N. Schore, PhD

Page 6 of 9 Previous page Next Page

Relational Trauma and the Developing Right Brain: An Interface of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology and Neuroscience

Allan N. Schore, PhD
UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine

Developmental Psychobiology of Relational Trauma

During the brain growth spurt relational trauma-induced arousal dysregulation precludes the aforementioned visual-facial, auditory-prosodic, and tactile-gestural attachment communications and alters the development of essential right brain functions. In contrast to an optimal attachment scenario, in a growth-inhibiting relational environment the primary caregiver induces traumatic states of enduring negative affective arousal in the child. This caregiver is inaccessible and reacts to her infant's expressions of emotions and stress inappropriately and/or rejectingly, and therefore shows minimal or unpredictable participation in the various types of arousal regulating processes. Instead of modulating she induces extreme levels of stimulation and arousal, very high in abuse and/or very low in neglect. And because she provides no interactive repair the infant’s intense negative affective states last for long periods of time.

Studies in developmental traumatology reveal that the infant’s psychobiological reaction to trauma is comprised of two separate response patterns, hyperarousal and dissociation.48,49 In the initial hyperarousal stage, the maternal haven of safety suddenly becomes a source of threat, triggering a startle reaction in the infant’s right hemisphere, the locus of both the attachment and the fear motivational systems. The maternal stressor activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress axis, eliciting a sudden increase of the energy-expending sympathetic component of the infant’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), resulting in significantly elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, the somatic expressions of a dysregulated psychobiological state of fear-terror. This active state of sympathetic hyperarousal is expressed in increased secretion of corticotropin releasing factor (CRF)—the brain’s major stress hormone. CRF regulates sympathetic catecholamine activity, creating a hypermetabolic state in the developing brain.

But a second later forming reaction to relational trauma is dissociation, in which the child disengages from stimuli in the external world -traumatized infants are observed to be “staring off into space with a glazed look.” This parasympathetic dominant state of conservation-withdrawal occurs in helpless and hopeless stressful situations in which the individual becomes inhibited and strives to avoid attention in order to become "unseen." The dissociative metabolic shutdown state is a primary regulatory process by which the stressed individual passively disengages in order to conserve energies, foster survival by the risky posture of feigning death, and allow restitution of depleted resources by immobility. In this hypometabolic state heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration are decreased, while pain numbing and blunting endogenous opiates are elevated. This energy-conserving parasympathetic (vagal) mechanism mediates the “profound detachment” of dissociation.

In fact there are two parasympathetic vagal systems in the brainstem medulla.50 The ventral vagal complex rapidly regulates cardiac output to foster fluid engagement and disengagement with the social environment, aspects of a secure attachment bond of emotional communication. On the other hand, activity of the dorsal vagal complex is associated with intense emotional states and immobilization, and is responsible for the severe metabolic depression, hypoarousal, and pain blunting of dissociation. The traumatized infant’s sudden state switch from sympathetic hyperarousal into parasympathetic dissociation is described by Porges as “the sudden and rapid transition from an unsuccessful strategy of struggling requiring massive sympathetic activation to the metabolically conservative immobilized state mimicking death associated with the dorsal vagal complex.”50 Whereas the ventral vagal complex exhibits rapid and transitory activations, the dorsal vagal nucleus exhibits an involuntary and prolonged pattern of vagal outflow, creating lengthy “void” states associated with pathological dissociative detachment.

How are the dual traumatic contexts of hyperarousal and dissociative hypoarousal expressed behaviorally within the mother-infant dyad? Observational research demonstrates a link between frightening maternal behavior, dissociation, and disorganized infant attachment.51 Hesse and Main52 observe the mother’s frightening behavior: “in non-play contexts, stiff-legged ‘stalking’ of infant on all fours in a hunting posture; exposure of canine tooth accompanied by hissing; deep growls directed at infant.” In recent work, Hesse and Main53 document a fear alarm is triggered in the infant when the mother enters a dissociative freeze state: “Here the parent appears to have become completely unresponsive to, or even aware of, the external surround, including the physical and verbal behavior of their infant…[W]e observed one mother who remained seated in an immobilized and uncomfortable position with her hand in the air, blankly staring into space for 50 sec.” Note the intergenerational transmission of not only relational trauma, but the bottom-line defense against traumatic emotional experiences, dissociation.