Most of us have been told at one time or another that children aren’t supposed to remember anything that happens to them before – roughly – the age of two. Due to that, people believe that emotionally painful experiences during infancy will therefore have no lasting impact. These words might have been reassuring, if they didn’t also imply infants don’t remember the love we have given them, and love at this time has no lasting impact either. As science continues to throw open the mysteries of the brain, and the nature of memory, this kind of advice will gradually vanish. Every emotionally meaningful experience – whether joyous or painful – is stored in memory and has a lasting impact on a baby’s developing nervous system. Even if not consciously remembered, early memories show themselves indirectly through behavior. Body memory – explains why, for instance, a woman who was molested as a child remains fearful of intimacy – at least with men that ‘remind’ her of the perpetrator – even without a trace of conscious memory of the traumatic episodes. Body memories are basically “somatic” flashbacks and our bodies, believe it or not, remember everything. Body memories are the bodies way of telling, remembering, and storing not only the trauma but the joy.
Throughout my early and teen years my parents used physical discipline as a way to keep me in line. I would get “spankings” for not completing my homework, for lying, for being rude…etc. However, people who believe “sparing the rod spoils the child” typically dismiss the enormous body of research that shows that hitting children turns them into angry, resentful adults. These children are more than likely to suffer mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse problems, and less likely to empathize with others or internalize norms of moral behavior. These children’s self-image begins with how they perceive their parents perceive them. Even in the most loving homes, spanking gives a confusing message. Parents will spend a lot of time building their child’s sense of self and of being valued, then the child will break a glass, parents spank, and the child feels terrible. When I was reprimanded the image of my mother’s look got stored in my brain, and as I grew I judged my own behavior through the lenses of these stored inner representations. These became imprinted with feelings of guilt and shame. In my case, this turned into anxiety. The experience of parents setting healthy boundaries literally grows a child’s orbitofrontal brain. The purpose of the orbitofrontal brain is to contain and regulate raw emotion. However, when the parent imposes limits the child feels a degree of hurt and betrayal. This developmentally change in the parent-child relationship is emotionally stressful. It is important that the parent soothe the child after imposing restrictions on him/her. Reassurance of the parent’s love restores the child’s self-confidence. Though this process is usually unconscious, it secures our ability to self-soothe, and to recover from shame when needed. Psychological and social problems arise when a child grows up with too many images of a disapproving face stored in body memories without the subsequent images of a soothing and reassuring adult. A child that lacks these positive images, stored in his memory, is at risk of slipping into depression, becoming overly inhibited, or defensively hostile.
My anxiety can be quite overwhelming. All day, every day, life is like this. Fear. Avoidance. Anxiety about what was said or what wasn’t said. The fear of sounding dumb, fear of rejection, fear of not fitting in. The mere thought of having to stand in front of a class, read, or talk makes me nauseous. My voice begins to quaver. While I’m walking, I’m conscious that people might be staring at me. I know it’s not really true, I tell myself that people don’t really care, but I can never shake the feeling. My self-consciousness and my anxiety rise to the roof, and if I am not careful it can turn into a full-blown panic attack. I know I’m being irrational, I know that I am not always under a microscope, but despite this rationality, the fear stays. Most days I balance on a wobbly fulcrum between comfort and fear. I talk to myself all day long, setting priorities and limits aloud: “Ok, Tari, you can go to this party. You will go to this party. Marc invited you, and just because you don’t know his friends doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time. You’re going to this party.” That night, I get into my car, drive to his off campus apartment, climb up the stairs to his door, and stand for three minutes before bolting straight for my car. “You’ll go next time,” I say to myself. “There’s always next time.”
Anxiety changes a person. Anxiety manifests in some pretty obvious ways—sweaty palms, strange rashes, shaky hands and legs, and inner body quivers. These are all body memories. Anxiety can be a crippling feeling that makes a person shut down. When you have anxiety, you’re not scared of the outside world, but often, you’re scared of getting sick in it and dealing with your anxiety in public. I’m not anti-social because I’m scared of people, I’m scared of people judging me. You can’t wrap your mind around severe anxiety unless you’ve been through it. How do you capture the real essence of what’s going through your mind and body? My anxiety is what drives me; although deluded as those visions of the future may be, they scare me and motivate me to turn Netflix off and apply for graduate school. Anxiety bullies me into believing that I’m not good enough, and I make it my conscious effort to prove it wrong. My anxiety is what pulls me out of bed in the mornings to write, or to go to work, or to go to the gym. As terrible as it may make me feel, anxiety pushes me to finish the things it convinces me I can’t finish. When I jump to grab an opportunity to try something new, I’m acting off the support from the small voice whispering in my ear, reminding me that I’ll regret letting my anxious thoughts keep me from positive experiences. When I jump to grab an opportunity to try something new, I’m acting off the support from the small voice whispering in my ear, reminding me that I’ll regret letting my anxious thoughts keep me from positive experiences.