Moshe Szyf, an epigenetics researcher, makes the claim that our childhood primary caregivers live in every cell of our PFC, the prefrontal cortex. I would also throw the amygdala, our basic survival network, into the equation.The PFC includes five linked parts of the brain responsible for functions like giving self and others empathy, self-regulation, self-compassion and self-awareness. Anyone who grew up with a well-regulated parent carries a sense of ease and calm inside their bodies. The more a person was parented with warmth and affection, the stronger the connections between the PFC and the amygdala.
The opposite is also true. Because the amygdala’s function is to ensure survival, under duress, real or imagined, it’s deficits will override the PFC’s functions. Deep within the limbic or reptilian brain, the amygdala continuously scans to make an assessment of danger, at around 12 to 100 times per second, with questions like: “Am I safe, am I being seen, can I hide, am I prey?” The amygdala makes comparisons between past and present experience in an attempt to identify danger and to set off fight/flight/freeze alarm systems. If an abusive uncle had a white, pencil-thin mustache, the amygdala will react, when, even 35 years later, that same image appears in a photo or in real life. Past needs for safety that were ignored or shamed, can weaken the immune system or drive many people to engage in self-harm, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, busyness, addictions and pursuing endless distractions.
Have you ever lost your temper or lied for no good reason, without premeditation, and then tried to avoid that person until your shame dissipates? Or gone ahead and done something unwholesome, ignoring warnings from self or from loved ones? These are some examples of impaired self-regulation. Self-regulation is defined as the ability to maintain focus and attention when emotions feel over-powering, along with the ability to reflect on one’s behavior/have self-awareness.
The accurate naming of an emotion, with warmth and empathy, is the biggest step towards practising self-regulation; e.g. “I feel scared, my chest feels tight and I feel unsafe.” Putting into words what previously went unnoticed, links up our PFC neural networks to the amygdala. When our need for safety is reassured, a next layer of awareness may arise. A memory of yourself as a helpless child shivering and alone, locked out of the house may surface. You can soothe that part by placing your hand on your heart and saying: ” I am guessing you may still be feeling terrified and confused. I am listening. Thanks for reminding me to take really good care of you.” This action plants the seeds for future self-awareness and increases the chances that next time you lose the car keys, your cold-blooded, hypervigilant amygdala will listen to your warm-blooded, wise PFC.
Emotions evolved as signals to sustain survivial all the way up to becoming in mammals, (mamas), signals that tell us about our need for play, creativity, belonging and contribution. Emotions are little or big messages that inform us of our needs; (see Marshall Rosenberg for the 12 different categories of needs). As we reframe our personal story away from victim, rescuer and perpetrator and as we open up to the perspective of a universal human story, that all humans have the same needs, we naturally resonate with kindness and care for ourselves and others.
“We have to let ourselves be loved by imperfect humans.” writes Sarah Peyton in her book: Your Resonant Self. I would add that we also need to let ourselves be loved by plants, animals, places, our ancestors, the seasons, by music, literature, poetry, art and by our warm-blooded, mammalian selves.