Why do I need to talk about my childhood?

If you have been in counselling before, you may have been asked about your family or early childhood experiences. Some clients get annoyed by this question, thinking that the past is irrelevant or that therapy is just about blaming their parents for current-day problems. But we are not asking about this to assign blame or to ruminate on the past. Most parents (of course, there are exceptions) have good intentions and are just humans doing the best they are able to. However, the past is present in our daily interactions with others. This is the basis of the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model.

What is AIP?
First developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, the AIP model suggests that the way past experiences were stored in the brain may impact one’s belief about ourself and others. It also suggests that based on these beliefs, people have adapted certain behaviors and attitudes that influence their daily life. During a trauma, the event can become trapped in the emotional part of the brain. If something similar to the original trauma comes up again, this memory gets activated in the same way and can cause the person to apparently overreact or freeze much like they did originally.

Traumatic experiences get stuck in the neural networks with the original perceptions and sensations of the trauma that are triggered by internal or external stimuli. As a result, they become the basis for future unhelpful responses when current events are connected with associated neural networks.

For example, imagine a young child was left at a hospital in the middle of the night due to a medical crisis. Her parents had to leave her and she had this overwhelming sense of abandonment and terror. Because of the stress on her body and the absence of her caregivers, she began to organize her experience to the best of her ability. But she presented with somatic (bodily) symptoms and severe anxiety at any sign of separation from her mother. As she came into adulthood, this and other life experiences continued to shape her fear of abandonment in romantic relationships.

One of the principles of the AIP model is that the failure of unpacking and resolving these stored memories leads to a range of symptoms when the memories are activated. These could include reactions that intrude and lower quality of life. These are called flashbacks.

For that little girl in the hospital, unprocessed childhood trauma was stored with automatic survival reactions of freeze and dissociation (disconnection from feelings) in any situational association with the danger. As an adult, this may not be a helpful reaction in situations which are getting associated with the trauma memory. Through EMDR, she can begin to reprocess these memories and see that the past is truly in the past and that she was not abandoned but had a medical crisis. She can then relate that she no longer needs to fear this same abandonment from her husband or children.

How can it help?
Out of place emotions and negative behaviours that may be bothering a person can be recognised and connected to past experiences.
The model can help uncover exactly what memories trigger the reactions and attitudes one exhibits. With that information, a client and their therapist can use EMDR to process these memories and triggers and transform unhelpful beliefs and perceptions. Isolated memory networks can link up with more adaptive helpful networks so the memory feels in the past and negative self- beliefs are converted to more helpful beliefs.

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