The autonomic nervous system learns through experience. This process begins before birth as we take in and respond to our environment. Adverse environments can have an adverse effect on this shaping process. Prenatal adversity can include maternal stress, poverty, lack of social support and substance abuse. Depression and anxiety in the mother can impact the developing foetus.
The womb is the first environment, followed by the family and it is these early environments that create habitual autonomic responses that can last a lifetime. Intimate interactions between the mother and baby shape the baby’s system influencing its capacity to regulate. The pattern of connection with a responsive caregiver involves being in connection, falling out of connection, and re-connecting. With a regulated and responsive other, we learn to experience safety in connection.
Attunement occurs when the caregiver is able to read and respond to the emotions and bodily state of the infant. Repeated experiences of attunement facilitate healthy growth and development. However, where misattunement is a common experience regulation and resilience suffers. When the caregivers are themselves dysregulated (through unresolves trauma, for example) they are unable to offer the safety in connection needed to help the infant regulate. The parents, stuck in states of defence and protection, cannot offer life-nurturing connection. The child’s autonomic nervous system adapts by developing its own patterns of protection.
The nervous system needs an ‘organising other’. Without it, it is at a loss and patterns of dysregulation are passed from one generation to the next. Trauma survivor’s get chronically stuck in states of dysregulation characterised by lack of balance, flexibility and a sense of overwhelm and helplessness. This leads not just to mental health problems but to physical health problems: poor immune functioning, problems with digestion, respiration, risk of heart disease and stroke, fatigue and diabetes.