Developmental shock experiences happen without any conscious control or effort because they are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has three parts: the parasympathetic, sympathetic and Social Engagement System. These parts all work together to help people maintain an internal sense of emotional balance.

The Autonomic Nervous System

autonomic nervous systemThe sympathetic system provides extra energy during times of stress. The parasympathetic system provides calming and relaxation after stressful activities.

The Social Engagement System, is a set of five cranial nerves that were identified by Stephen Porges[1]. It keeps people socially and emotionally engaged during relational experiences. These five nerves must be “activated” or “awakened” during the first three months of life by social interactions with caregivers. These interactions help the child “read” different kinds of facial expressions and recognize the difference between a sad, angry and happy face. This is also when the child learns to give and receive smiles.

Shock States & The Autonomic Nervous System

Intense emotional events upset the balance in the autonomic nervous system. Events that trap people in a life-or-death situation not of their choosing from which there is no escape, will quickly overwhelm the autonomic nervous system. This immediately activates the reptilian or “old” brain and the parasympathetic nervous system. A person will immediately drop them into dissociative freeze reaction.

Freeze states are characteristic of developmental shock. They are an extreme defense strategy that the body automatically uses when there is no possibility of fight or flight. The Mind-body uses this “feigned death” defense mechanism only as a last resort, in an attempt to survive until the danger is past.

The freeze response is a natural survival mechanism. It’s goal is to convince predators that its prey is already dead and undesirable. We often see this kind freeze or immobility response in animals such as opossums. They lay quietly like they are dead. People do the same thing in extreme fear states. Their blood pressure drops, their muscles collapse and their minds numb out, unable to store information. As a result amnesia is very common after shock-inducing experiences.

Shock States in Humans

During shock reactions, people experience lowered vitality, increased depression, dissociation and a loss of time orientation. Shocked babyHere are signs of shock:

  • a frozen appearance;
  • glassy staring eyes that dont blink;
  • bulging eyes with dilated pupils;
  • a whitening of the skin;
  • cold hands & feet;
  • no emotions;
  • paralyzed speech;
  • have the urge to move away from others
  • curl into fetal position;
  • appear immobilized;
  • and experience falling into the Black Hole.”

The Black Hole is a term commonly used to describe the loss of reality that happens during shock experiences. People may regress into the past and re-experience unconscious memories of early abandonment, neglect and abuse. get split off from the conscious mind and stored in the unconscious mind.

Young children have no defenses to protect them from traumatic events, and typically fall quickly into a shock state. When infants experience a lot of shock, their brains and nervous systems will create a very complex and compact system system that stores dissociated memories. These memories can get triggered later in life with just the right sensory cue.

Children Learn to Cope With Shock

After several episodes of falling into the Black Hole, children learn a variety of coping mechanisms to help them to avoid it. They use their thumbs, fists, soft blankets or a pacifier as substitutes for the loss of social and emotional comforting and support. These substitutes help disrupt their fall into the Black Hole and also helps them re-regulate their emotions.

Pacifiers and other oral mother-substitutes serve an important function for an infant in shock. They substitute for the physical comfort and emotional experiences that they need from their mothers. Because the shared emotional attunement is missing, however, the substitute never completely satisfies the deep yearning of emotional connection with her. This is also the core of oral addictions.

According to Claire Winstone (2003, p. 8 24), developmental shock experiences can block access to some of the deepest aspects of the Self. This often causes difficulties in adulthood with intimacy, self-esteem, and connecting to one’s sense of purpose and meaning and spirituality.

Common Causes of Developmental Shock During the Co-dependent Stage

Between the time of conception and the age of six to eight months, children’s cellular memory, brains and nervous systems are permanently imprinted with specific cues and signals that are related to shocking early childhood experiences. These cues and signals become highly sensitized triggers that can instantaneously activate the body’s Adrenal Stress Response.

Eventually, these biologically-based behavioral response patterns become hardwired into children’s brains, bodies, character and relationships. We believe that adult mental health is related to how much a person was comforted during experiences of developmental shock.

The most common causes of developmental shock during the co-dependent stage of development include:

  • The inability of parents or adult caregivers to attune with children and create consistent experiences of emotional
  • synchronization and unconditional love,
  • Emotional coldness, unresponsiveness or remoteness by the mother or other early primary caregivers;
  • Persistent disregard of the child’s basic emotional needs for comfort, stimulation and affection, particularly during times of developmental stress;
  • The inability of the parent to help the child quickly re-regulate his or her emotions.
  • Persistent disregard of the child’s need for physical touch, particularly skin-to-skin contact;
  • Repeated changes of primary caregivers that disrupt or prevent bonding during the first six months, but especially during the first two months;
  • Premature, repeated and/or overly-long periods of separation from the mother during the first six months, but particularly
  • the first two months;
  • Undiagnosed and/or chronic or recurring painful illnesses such as colic or chronic ear infections during the first six
  • months;
  • Extended periods of crying in which the parents are not able to provide comfort;
  • Betrayal by trusted adult caregivers who use children to meet their own needs for love, touch, emotional support, security and protection;
  • Inconsistent or inadequate childcare;
  • Chronic maternal depression or physical illness;
  • Premature birth and live-saving medical interventions;
  • Physical separation from the mother at birth;
  • Maternal use of drugs and alcohol during gestation and nursing period;
  • Invasive medical procedures such as ultrasound, amniocentesis during the gestational period, and
  • Drug-induced births.

Intergenerational Issues

Intergenerational factors are also primary causes of developmental shock. Research on the neurobiology of attachment indicates that the early experiences of female infants with their mothers influences how they will respond to their own infants when they later become mothers. This early mother-child imprint serves as the psychobiological mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of both supportive and maladaptive parenting styles.

Psychologist Alan Schore believes it is a primary influence on the mother’s ability to respond to their children’s needs for emotional attunement and relational synchrony (Schore, 2003a, p. 195). If a mother was left in intense emotional dysregulation for long periods as an infant, she is likely to be unresponsive to her own child during prolonged periods of crying and screaming. This intergenerational pattern of neglect can be very difficult to identify and treat because the source of it is buried so deep in the psyche.

In Part IV of our book, Healing Developmental Trauma: A Systems Approach to Counseling Individuals, Couples and Families,
we discuss the appropriate interventions for treating developmental shock.


Dykema, R. (2006). Nexus Magazine, “How your nervous system sabotages your ability to relate: An interview with Stephen Porges about his polyvagal theory.” March/April issue, online at: http://www.nexuspub.com/articles/2006/interview_ma.htm.

Winstone, C. (2003). Insights Magazine – B.C. Association Of Clinical Counsellors, Pre- and Peri-natal Shock: Considerations for Psychotherapy, pp. 8-24.

Schore, a. (2003a). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self. New York: W. W. Norton, p. 195.

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