Mind Matters — Reflections on Psychology

“What do psychologists do?” Some people may wonder. Even I, as a psychologist, don’t know all the possibilities and definitions that my own profession may include.

I’m writing this article from California where I have just attended the 118th annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA).

The program agenda was listed in a catalog the size of a small city’s telephone directory. It amazed me as to the breadth and depth of presentations, from neuroscientific research on mirror neurons to climate change and its social justice implications; child development to issues of aging; disaster response to post traumatic stress disorder; peace psychology to military psychology.

I believe that the last time I attended an APA annual convention, I had just completed a Master’s in clinical psychology and had begun my doctoral work; I even presented a paper, the title of which I cannot recall. That was 1970-something.

This time, although not a presenter, I was delighted to find presentations on topics dismissed or unheard of in the 1970s. Hardly a soul discussed how mindfulness and meditation might help emotional regulation and reduce anxiety. Hardly a soul then discussed intergenerational trauma and its subtle (and not so subtle) cascade of emotional and physical stressors coursing down the family tree. Few then discussed sexual abuse—in families or otherwise. In the 70s, post-Kinsey (who made no judgment regarding incest in his vast study of sexuality, but who did document the existence of incest in families), the women’s movement opened the door for women to have a voice regarding sexual and physical abuse. Rape crisis centers were still practically unheard of.

What may have been intuited by some of us foty years ago is now being validated by neuroscience. This is heavenly to me to know that my forth years of educated hunch is now “evidence-based.” Yes, John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, documented separation and attachment disorders in infants and children after World War II. T. Berry Brazelton, MD, has likewise dedicated his career to infancy and attachment bonding. However, now, in the age of neuroscience, we find that for the developing brains of infants and children, interaction with the environment is crucial—that particularly translates into the caregiver (mother, father, whoever) relationship with the child as of utmost importance.

The mirror neurons of the caregiver interact with the mirror neurons of the child, creating lasting bonds. (Actually, whenever we interact with one another our mirror neurons are dancing together.) What also helps create bonds is the chemical oxytocin, the “birthing chemical.” Now studies show that oxytocin (pitocin), which increases in the mother during labor and delivery and during nursing, is actually a biochemical that can promote empathy and attachment. Studies are addressing how else oxytocin might be used to alleviate pain or augment caring relationships.

Dr. Seth Pollak’s research gives credence to the family therapist’s long abiding belief that children are emotional barometers of their parents.

In his study, children who have been abused or neglected in their families appeared to be able to “read” anger in another’s face more rapidly than normal children and that they also had a harder time calming down after simply “overhearing” a simulated argument between supposed researchers (who were in fact actors).

Another program (which, unfortunately, I was unable to attend) highlighted the prevalence of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury) as the long lingering effects of the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My hunch is that in terms of intergenerational trauma and the effects on children and families, PTSD and TBI will be having an immense ripple effect on developing brains and adult behaviors (the rise of suicides, substance abuse, domestic violence).

Ironically, leaving the conference in San Diego, I took a detour by train to Monterey to visit my son. I couldn’t help but observe a very anxious woman with her children coming up to the ticket line behind me. She was fretting and one of her preteen children was complaining. I figured, eh, par for the course, get to the train station in a dither, once she gets baggage taken care of, she and her brood—somewhere between the ages of 12 to 16—will get some OJ or coffee at the special free reception area (for the sleeping car passengers) and they’ll all settle down.

Not happening. The mother continued to be anxious worrying about when to board the Red Cap, and on and on. (I give her credit for raising socially conscious kids—her daughter attempted to throw trash away, but could only find a the recycling container. When she asked what to do, the café attendant turned the blue can around so that the recycling logo was hidden! (Child idealism down the tubes!)

Anyway, anxious mother remained in a tizzy as she scurried to the Red Cap.

I thought perhaps she would chill when she got settled on the train. Hours later, I heard her talking frantically to her children about how her bag has been stolen and now what ever will she do—everything was in that bag, oh my God, oh my God ….

Minutes later I noticed our cabin attendant Toni with purse in hand. I asked the very observant Toni, “What happened?” She sighed, saying that the lady really left it herself in another car on the train. We both silently acknowledge that this woman needed “to chill.”

Now I don’t know what this mother’s story was and why she could not self-soothe. She and her kids were well-dressed, she didn’t appear to be economically distressed.

She appeared, however, to be in a constant state of emotional dysregulation. She was “awfulizing” and “generalizing”and in “all or nothing” thinking mode.

“If we don’t have the family bedroom on the train, we’re lost” rather than “we’ll make it work.” “My purse has been stolen” rather than “gee I wonder where I left it.”

I don’t know what this woman’s history was to keep her in this hyper-vigilant state. Perhaps it was situational and created by some immediate happenstance. My guess is that this is her modus operandi a lot of the time.

I wondered about her children. They seemed well-behaved and actually rather quiet. I wondered if they as emotional barometers were always trying to ascertain/read mother’s next crisis. What were their emotional states like?

Surely there was a family dynamic being created here that would have its lingering effects.

So it goes for the peripatetic psychologist, witnessing psychological theory in situ.