Paradoxically, in spite of craving the experience of wellbeing, too often it eludes us. This is especially so when we need it most, in situations of emotional or interpersonal stress. More significant still, is the distressing experience of dysregulated feelings even when there’s no real threat to our wellbeing. For example, when circumstances are not as frightening as they are perceived to be, when insults to our self-esteem do not come from the outside, or when in spite of actual success we still experience failure.
We recognize that hyperaroused or hypoaroused reactions to real danger have served survival; it’s a little more difficult to understand the occasional ambush-like, inexplicable descent into dysregulation. Furthermore, even when we fully understand the roots of our “triggers” and wish to negate their effects, we still struggle with difficult feelings and negative narratives that keep creeping up regardless of our best conscious intentions.
The answers as to why we are vulnerable to gripping states of dysregulation are found in the neuropsychology of our unconscious patterns (see Ginot, 2015), and the affective states that underpin them. In particular, as J. Panksepp (2012) has shown, the FEAR system has a major role in undermining a continuous state of wellbeing. Vital in out distant past, innate fear reactions, especially in early development, can result in an unconscious tendency to relive anxiety and other destabilizing emotions in response to a wide range of circumstances.
From the very beginning, the fear system and its emissary, sentry and executor — the amygdala — react to any signal of potential danger. The amygdala is also important to the process of encoding fearful memories and fear-based learning. Because of its sensitivity to assaultive stimuli and unexpected sensory experiences such as loud noises, the amygdala can interpret many environmental events as scary and threatening. Consequently, throughout development, many events, seemingly benign to adults, get the full attention of the amygdala. The physio-affective reactions to these events become part of integrated fearful stimuli-response loops. With enough repetitions, these processes lead to an unconscious readiness to perceive fear and automatically react with destabilizing anxiety.
For example, consider infancy from points of view other than that of attachment. Although the importance of attachment to affect regulation is fundamental, other unintentional experiences may create fear-based memories and responses. Think, for example, of a very noisy environment, interpreted by the amygdala as potentially dangerous; or of a poverty-stricken and improvised environment. Think of parents who are loving and attentive to the child but don’t get along and frequently fight; or parents who are hurried and preoccupied.
Intriguingly, fMRI studies demonstrated that a mother’s neutral and inexpressive face is a source for infant anxiety (Ohman, 2009). Neutral expressions of a loving but hurried mother, then, can leave the child and subsequently the adult vulnerable to dysregulation when the other is perceived as withdrawing or rejecting.
In addition, because a part of the child is always attuned to her parents’ emotional states, parental anxiety and unhappiness, their anxious narratives and fearful behaviors — entirely unconnected to the child — are still internalized as part of the child’s own unconscious anxious state. Within particular contexts, these anxious states will be ignited. One is not aware of the fear-inducing or destabilizing trigger or of the response to it.
Underscoring such vulnerability is the epigenetic interaction between our biological predisposition to experience fear and the countless everyday situations.
We can see, then, how a wide range of experiences can become suffused with the unconscious tendency to trigger anxious self-states. What adds to dysregulated states is the brain/mind propensity to enact entrenched patterns. In response to seemingly benign situations that nonetheless carry personal negative significance, disturbing affects and cognitions will be automatically and unconsciously enacted. These are often in the form of worries and ruminations.
As we often witness, such reactions are disproportionate to the actual threat, mostly reflecting internal response patterns. Finally, when regulation fails, negative affects and narratives tend to take over, pushing out perspectives that could help stabilize the negative state. This explains why dyregulated self-states are temporarily experienced as the only existing reality.
At the same time, the neuropsychology of our unconscious also points the way to therapeutic approaches that can tackle the brain/mind’s tendency to enact patterns. More on this, in my next blog posts.
Efrat Ginot Ph.D., a graduate of the NYU Postdoctoral Program for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, is a psychologist-psychoanalyst and a supervisor in New York City. Her published papers on enactments, intersubjectivity and self-narratives integrate neuropsychology and psychoanalytic thinking. She received the 2002 Gradiva Award for best article examining the concept of the Holding Environment. Her recently published book, The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious: Integrating Brain and Mind in Psychotherapy, continues her integrative work. Efrat Ginot is also an artist.
Ginot, E. (2015). The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious: Integrating Brain and Mind in Psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
Ohman, A. (2009). Human fear conditioning and the amygdala. In P. J. Whalen and E. A. Phelps (Eds.), The Human Amygdala (pp. 118-54). New York: Guilford Press.
Panksepp, J. and Biven, L. (2012). Archeology of Mind: The Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York: Norton.