Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

July 17, 2012

The Thinking Mind

by Molly Keeton Parnell, Ph.D.

“Mind, body, and breath complete the circle of life”

This is what my yoga instructor stated last week as we were moving into Savasana, or the meditation portion of the class. This observation gave me pause for a moment and then quickly resonated as true. I was immediately aware of how much more time my mind spends actively thinking compared to the miniscule amount of time that I spend just “being” in my body and with my breath. For a moment, I was absolutely captivated by the fact that while we are equally mind, body and breath, the mind takes about 99.9% of the airtime. I suddenly had the image of a horse drawn carriage with the coach using a whip to keep the horse going. The mind is like that coach, whipping the attention back to itself over and over and over again. If the mind even begins to wander towards a moment of quiet, there’s that crack of the whip and we are again deeply entrenched in thought. On the contrary, for most of us the body only demands attention in the case of physical discomfort (and even then, the mind never stops going full speed. It may just share some of the real estate with awareness of body). And it seems that the breath almost never dominates our attention, unless there is some respiratory illness or perhaps a panic attack, where the ability to breathe is perceived to be diminished. In fact, a panic attack is a good example of the connection between mind, body, and breath because of how quickly the mind jumps in to perpetuate the sense of panic. Shortness of breath may be a cause of concern, but it only turns into a full blown anxiety attack when the mind starts putting negative labels on the feelings in the body, which causes an intensifying of bodily sensations that lead to more panicked feelings in the mind, and so forth. Just thoughts of not having enough breath leads to what feels like a physical reality of not having enough breath.

And yes, I had all of these thoughts while I was SUPPOSED to be headed into a meditative state. The irony was not lost on me. I redirected my focus to my breath, yet my mind continued to think about the way it was thinking, about the way that humans seem to be programmed, about my grocery list and messy house, and how well this thinking vs. being struggle would fit into the article that I needed to write. Sensing that my restless and hyper brain was not easily inclined to getting quiet, I opted to give way to trying to force it to happen and instead to simply notice the way that my mind seems to work. I was immediately aware of the desire to let go of thinking and the sense of panic that my mind felt at that notion – the fear of letting go. I then felt frustration that this seems to be such a difficult task, wondering if it is only difficult for me and why I haven’t mastered it at this point in my life and emotional growth. As I started to berate myself for this, I noticed what my mind had done. By beating myself up for my lack of meditation skill I was remaining active in my mind. My mind had tricked me into staying mentally focused by distracting me with the oldest trick in the book – self-criticism. While I did not have the breath-body experience that I wished for, I learned something significant about the various ways the mind manages to stay primary and also found inspiration for this article!

So, what is it that compels us to think, think, think? To think about thinking? To think about how to not think (now, there’s a no-win puzzle for you!)? What is responsible for the non-stop dialogue of the brain, the million thoughts a minute diatribe wherein I can go rapid-fire from thoughts of my to do list, to pondering my spirituality, to worrying about getting my article written quickly, to beating myself up for my habit of procrastinating, to wondering what purpose procrastination serves for me and if I’ll ever find a better way, to reflecting that perhaps I could practice self-acceptance related to procrastination and simply accept it as a part of life?

It turns out that the source of the 24-7-365, not-a-millisecond-off running monologue is the left hemisphere of the brain. You may have heard that left brain dominant people are better at math and right brain people are the artists of the world. And perhaps it is true that people are generally more dominant in one side than the other, but the reality is we all have two hemispheres that work together as a whole yet have dramatically different purposes and functions. In cases where the two halves of the brain have been surgically separated (by cutting the corpus callosum, or the structure that connects the two sides) the right and left hemispheres have been found to operate as two separate brains, each with distinct personalities. In humans with a normally functioning corpus callosum, the two hemispheres of the brain are “more appropriately viewed as two complementary halves of a whole” and “virtually every cognitive behavior we exhibit involves activity in both hemispheres – they simply do it differently” (Bolte Taylor, p. 29). However, scientists still do not fully understand the way the two halves work together. While it was long believed that the corpus callosum created communication between the two hemispheres, recent research supports the idea that the corpus callosum may actually be serving to keep the two halves divided.

The Left Hemisphere

My experience in yoga class can be well understood by knowing the dominance of the left hemisphere and its instinct to remain in the driver’s seat of the mind. The job of the left brain is to sort, organize, and analyze all incoming information. When stimuli is received through our senses (eyes, ears, etc.), the left brain categorizes and notes distinctions, or where things are different. For example, it is your left brain that is interested in better understanding the differences between your two hemispheres.  (Your right brain is in the moment, feeling peaceful, and doesn’t really care what part does what)!

The left brain is “linear and methodical” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31) and sees the details rather than the whole. The left brain manages our interactions with the world by time streaming every piece of data. It both sorts things according to the proper sequence (i.e. we put on our socks before our shoes) and organizes events in their proper place in time (i.e. past, present, and future).

The mechanism by which the left brain completes its duty of sorting, organizing and analyzing is through language. The left brain contains our language centers, which utilize words to define and categorize, or break the big picture down into data bits that are distinct and manageable. For example, Bolte Taylor points out that when out in nature, our left brain sees and labels the distinct parts of all that we see, such as stem, petal, and leaf. The left hemisphere then organizes those details back into the whole to see a flower. It “… thrives on weaving facts and details into a story” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31). It uses deductive reasoning and creates an understanding of the world in this way (i.e. if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C).

The left mind’s language centers help us to understand that letters form words and that words form sentences. It is the left hemisphere that comprehends the meanings of these words and sentences, but it can only do so in a literal way. If I say that my friend is really cool, the left brain might want to give her a blanket, whereas the right brain understands the more subtle interpretation of this phrase. We need our right hemisphere to help translate things like humor or sarcasm as well as for interpreting non-verbal communication.

Our left brains also think in ways that become patterned based on incoming sensory information. Neurological circuits are developed and then run mostly automatically. These circuits allow us to take in information efficiently without having to break what we are sensing down into the individual pieces and then reconstruct those pieces into a whole. So, when I see an object that can be easily held in the hand that contains buttons with numbers, I know it is a telephone even though there is wide variation in the way different phones look. Each time one of these neurological circuits is stimulated, it becomes more engrained and then takes less outside stimulation to run in the future. Our left hemisphere then becomes quite adept at prediction, not only predicting how objects may function (a phone will ring) but also how we will feel, react, or respond to things based on the past. Thus, our left brain may give us a story such as “I always turn in my assignments late”, which then gets replayed and strengthened every time the topic of an assignment floats through the mind.

In receiving all sensory stimuli as distinct parts, the left hemisphere also focuses on the separation between ourselves and others. This half of the brain contains the “ego center”, which defines the self as “I” and defines what we do, think, and feel as “I am”. Our constant brain chatter helps us to rehearse and memorize the details of our lives, such as our names, occupations, relationship status, values, preferences, etc. As it is the job of the left hemisphere to categorize, all data is sorted into dichotomous classes such as “good”, “bad”, “like”, or “dislike”. The left hemisphere similarly engages in constant comparison between ourselves and others, using a comparable hierarchy for “better”, “worse”, “success”, “failure”, etc. While the right brain sees connection and wholeness and holds the intuitive knowledge that we are perfect just the way we are, the “… ego mind revels in our individuality, honors our uniqueness, and strives for independence” (Bolte Taylor, p. 33). Guess who wins when it comes to our self-concept? You got it – the left hemisphere.

The Inner Critic and Judge

Byron Brown states:

This is the courtroom of life. And you are the one who is on trial… The judge is a part of your mind… it also lives through your body and your energy. The judge is a master of words, and yet you can feel it in your belly, your shoulders, and your jaw without any awareness of words. The judge is both pervasive and invisible. It speaks to you from commercials on TV, magazine ads and movies, as well as from the expression on your partner’s face, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the tone in your supervisor’s voice (Brown, p. 14).

The inner critic is the part of the mind that continuously and constantly evaluates, compares, judges, criticizes, blames and attacks us and others. The inner critic is always on call to condemn any of our innermost thoughts, beliefs, feelings or desires or which it disapproves. Nothing gets by the critic. It is rigid and perfectionistic, so most of our feelings, beliefs, and thoughts do not escape its judgment. The inner critic is always present but also invisible. It presents its point of view as fact rather than opinion.

The inner critic uses every piece of information ever taken in (from your caretakers, cultural group, school system, church, etc.) about how one is supposed to operate in the world. It is guided by the harsh and punishing attitudes of the environment in which we live. It compares you to yourself – your past self, your future self, the self you should be. It compares you to others, others to you, and others to others.

The inner critic excels in the ego center of the left hemisphere of the brain. The ego exists based on the concept of “I”. When we use the word “I”, we are generally referring to where we live, what we do for a living, what our relationship status is, what our hobbies include, etc. So, I might say I am a psychologist. I am a sister. I am American. I love movies. I might say that I am introverted, I am compassionate, I am a procrastinator. These things are part of my life circumstance, value system, and personality, but are they me? Are we able to say who we are without going down the list of where we came from, what we do, and what we believe ourselves to be?

According to Brown there is a way to quiet the inner critic. To begin the process of “disengaging from self-judgment…” you must begin “knowing yourself as a living soul” (Brown, p. XVII). Perhaps the best way to do this is to learn more about the right side of the brain.

 

The Right Hemisphere

While our left brains maintain dominance throughout most of our lives, it may actually be our right hemispheres that are primary. We come into this world right hemisphere dominant and remain that way until we are about two years old. Furthermore, for all humans at all stages of life, sensory information goes first to the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), next to the right hemisphere and lastly to the left hemisphere. Information from the heart and the gut (both of which contain neurotransmitters) also goes to the right hemisphere of the brain before the left. This flow of data seems to prove that “… although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (Bolte Taylor, p. 19).

The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor that takes in multiple sources of information simultaneously, comprehending at once the “big picture”. The right side contains our emotional sense of self and is responsible for relationships and emotional attachments. The right hemisphere sees the implicit meanings in things and is the part that responds to poetry, metaphor, and humor. It interprets non-verbal communication, such as tone and facial expression. The right hemisphere does not speak in words but rather in images, symbols, pictures and metaphors. If you have ever had an “A ha” moment where a light bulb of understanding suddenly illuminates, that occurs in the right hemisphere.

Our right hemispheres see the connections between things rather than the boundaries that separate. It sees how parts make up a whole. We have our right hemisphere to thank for the gift of empathy, or the ability to place ourselves in the position of another and imagine what their experience might be.

It is our right mind that gives us the ability to remember with crystal clarity certain isolated moments that have significance in our emotional lives (i.e. the first time you exchanged the words “I love you” with your partner or where you were when you heard about the September 11th attacks). The right mind takes in information in relation to other pieces of information and “… Borders between specific entities are softened, and complex mental collages can be recalled in their entirety as combinations of images, kinesthetics, and physiology” (Bolte Taylor, p. 30).

After Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist who had devoted her professional life to studying the brain, suffered a stroke resulting in the total (but temporary) shut down of the left hemisphere of her brain she realized that

…deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time. I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of the brain (p. 111).

Bolte Taylor learned that in her pre-stroke life, her personality had been dominated by the left side of the brain and by the tendency to judge and analyze. The experience of the stroke taught her that the two sides of the brain not only function in different ways with different types of perception and thought but also contain different types of interpretations for what is perceived. In short, Taylor’s experience revealed that the two hemispheres have quite different value systems and personalities. She found that the right hemisphere is “…completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world” (Bolte Taylor, p. 133) and that “…peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind” (Bolte Taylor, p. 111).

However, “left brain is dominant, speedy, and prone to rush in with words and symbols and prefers not to relinquish tasks to its mute partner unless it really dislikes the job or is unable to do it” (Edwards, Courtesy of Courtney Armstrong). How to silence the left mind is a question that Bolte Taylor does not answer. Is it possible to completely silence the inner critic and live completely in each moment?  Is this the goal or should we simply strive for a better balance between the two halves? These are not questions that I can answer for you, but I can invite you to take better notice of the inner critic and when its voice begins to take over.

Without awareness of the way our brains are structured, the judging part remains invisible, which makes it very, very powerful. It brings to mind one of my favorite movie quotes from the movie The Usual Suspects. It goes something like this…. “What is the smartest move the Devil ever made? To make man think he didn’t exist”. I am not trying to make a religious point here but simply articulate that a force is far more powerful when we don’t even fully understand that it is present. Various forms of oppression have been weakened greatly and social systems changed just through consciousness raising, or helping those being oppressed to understand the larger system of power. When something is unseen, how can it be challenged and overcome? Just simply recognizing that the inner critic is a part of the brain rather than some omnipotent messenger of truth does a great deal to lessen its hold.

Brown points out that while we are in the habit of defining ourselves as the “I” – the one who was born in Atlanta, is bad about procrastinating, works as a psychologist and can’t figure out how to keep a clean house – who we really are is a soul. Our right brain seems to be more in contact with that soul and to recognize that as a soul we cannot be compared to any other soul and deemed better or worse. On a soul level we have worth and value that must be separated from the specific details of our lives. We must fully take in that the “uniqueness of the soul is inherent in who you are at birth; it is not achieved, not can it be destroyed, and it is not dependent on your appearance or anything you do” (Brown, p. 31).

To learn more about what life could be like with soul awareness, I invite you to watch Jill Bolte Taylor describe her experiences of living in her brain’s right hemisphere.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

References:

Some of the information in this article came from a presentation by Courtney Armstrong, LPC of Chattanooga, TN. Thank you, Courtney, for helping me to better understand this exciting topic.

Other sources include:

Bolte Taylor, Jill (2009). My Stroke of Insight. New York: Plume/Penguin.

Brown, Byron (1999).  Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within. Boston: Shambala.

Edwards, Betty (1999). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin Books.

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March 3, 2009

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Filed under: 2009 Articles,Abuse & Trauma Recovery,Molly's Articles — karunacounseling @ 3:19 pm
Tags: , , , ,

 

 

triune_brain_image

By Molly Keeton, Ph.D.

Trauma is a word that we use and hear often, but what is trauma? It is usually defined as the experiencing or witnessing of an event(s) that is threatening or dangerous and out of one’s control. Trauma usually involves a feeling of helplessness. Many people serving in the military experience trauma, as do individuals who survive a natural disaster, serious accident, or personal assault. While these are common examples of trauma, experts generally agree that what makes something traumatic to a person is determined by their response to it, rather than whether someone else considers it “traumatizing”. For example, a student who was humiliated by a parent or teacher while growing up may have experienced a trauma.

The best way to determine if an event was traumatic in your life is simply to look at the impact it has had. Do you continually think about the event, even when you do not intend to? Do you sometimes experience the feelings that you felt during the event or even feel as if you are experiencing the trauma again? Do you avoid reminders of the event by steering clear of certain places, people, or topics of conversation? Do you have nightmares related to that event? Do you find yourself on edge, expecting danger, or responding differently than others to certain events (for example, a veteran may hit the floor when they hear a car backfire, thinking that it is a gunshot. Or a woman who has survived sexual assault may be untrusting of all men)?  Are these symptoms getting in the way of your relationships, goals, sense of peace and safety, or general life satisfaction? If you answered yes to even a few of these questions, you may be dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that may occur after a traumatic event. While these responses are normal and expected after a trauma has been experienced, PTSD occurs when they go on for weeks, months, or even years after a trauma. 

Trauma can have dramatic and long reaching effects on an individual’s life. Learning more about the neurological processes involved may provide information about why trauma impacts us the way it does, increase empathy for oneself and/or others, and promote awareness that healing can occur.  

 

Development of the human brain

The human brain contains three distinct parts that developed in this order: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the cortex (or neo-cortex). Higher level functions, such as planning, developed later than the more primitive capacities, such as aggression. 

The reptilian brain

The oldest and most primitive part of the brain. Primary task is survival. Controls breathing, balance, and temperature regulation. Acts out of instinct.

The mammalian brain

Includes the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain. Involved in the control and expression of emotion, the body’s response to danger, and the processing of short term memory. Primary focus is also survival.

The cortex (or neo-cortex)

The most recent area to develop within the brain. Allows for higher level thinking, analysis, logic, and intellectual pursuits. Cortex is always overridden by reptilian and mammalian brains.

                        

triune_brain_image

(From http://website.lineone.net/~bryn_evans/Triune_Brain/triune_brain.htm)

Despite how humans have evolved, the primary task of the brain remains self-preservation and propagating of the species. The functions of the reptilian and mammalian brains will always override the neo-cortex, as our very survival is dependent upon this. Because threat has a far more immediate and powerful consequence than reward, the brain is overdetermined to sense and respond to danger.

The brain receives data from the outside world through the five senses. This sensory information comes in through the thalamus and is directed either towards the limbic system or the cortex. If threat is perceived, the sensory input goes first to the brainstem and midbrain (limbic system). In this case the limbic system attempts to match the data against information and patterns that have been stored from past experience. If threat is perceived or if the data matches a template for danger, the alarm response of the brain is activated. The limbic system is quite complex and contains many different structures. For our purposes, we will focus on two of these structures: the amygdala and the hippocampus.

 

The Amygdala

The amygdala is the part of the limbic system responsible for processing and assigning emotional value to incoming sensory information. It is a tiny, almond shaped structure at the core of the limbic system. It is over 50,000 years old and was designed to protect us from threats such as a saber-tooth tiger. The amygdala functions sort of like a pass-fail exam. When trying to decipher between something that might bring pleasure and something that might bring death, every piece of sensory data must be quickly sorted into only one of two categories – safe or unsafe.

If the amygdala perceives a threat, it immediately springs into action and does not wait around for the cortex to analyze the data and return a verdict (i.e. “that man reminds me of someone dangerous because he has a similar hairstyle, but he is very clearly not the person who hurt me in the past). Although the limbic system and cortex have many interconnecting neurological pathways, communication to the cortex may be cut off in this moment of danger. When the potential for severe injury or death is imminent, there is simply no time to stop and make logical evaluations or interpretations. Remember that this system evolved to protect us from tigers and other such predators. It would be a waste of precious time if in the midst of being charged by a tiger one stopped to compare it to other tigers in that region, estimate its size or velocity, or begin planning the best strategy for escape.  

Before any conscious awareness has occurred, the amygdala activates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which enlists every area of the brain and body to respond to the threat and deactivates all non-crucial bodily functions, such the digestive and immune systems. The amygdala also determines the best response to a threat, including the fight, flight, and freeze responses. If the limbic system perceives that there is enough strength to defend oneself, then fight will be chosen. If adequate time, strength, and distance to allow for escape is perceived, then flight will be chosen. In both cases it is the sympathetic branch of the ANS that responds, resulting in increased respiration, heart rate, oxygenation of the blood, and blood flow to the muscles for mobility and strength.

If time, strength, and distance are not determined to be sufficient or if death could be imminent, then the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This branch is associated with resting and relaxation and leads to the freeze response.  This can be seen in nature when a mouse being attacked by a cat goes limp, oftentimes resulting in the cat losing interest and the mouse surviving.  As a teen I participated in a 3 week wilderness course where I was given similar advice. If I encountered a bear and was within close enough range to see it, there would be no way for me to outrun that bear. Outfighting it was obviously out of the question. My best defense would be to drop to the ground and hope that it would get bored of me before inflicting too much bodily harm.  This is VERY important information if you are a person who ever blamed yourself for how you responded to a trauma. Your reaction was not a thinking process and was not up to your conscious mind. It came from an instinctive part of your brain that is very, very old and very well programmed to protect you from any avoidable danger.

 

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a structure in the limbic system that is associated with learning and memory. The hippocampus stores memory of time, place, and space in time. It organizes memories in a chronological way. Because of the heavy activity of the Limbic and autonomic nervous systems during a traumatic event, traumatic memories are believed to get stuck in the lower and mid portions of the brain (reptilian and mammalian brains) where they cannot be accessed by the frontal lobes of the neo-cortex. While normal, non-traumatic memories get filed away in various places of the cortex, traumatic memories are not processed or integrated in the typical way.  

While this may seem like a cruel joke of nature, there is a good biological reason for it. When the limbic system perceives a threat, it activates the ANS to release hormones to enhance the fight, flight or freeze response. These hormones not only activate the body to physically respond but also supercharge the memory function of the brain (it should really only take one run in with a shark for the body to imprint that this is a dangerous situation). The amygdala is basically sending a strong message that whatever just occurred needs to be remembered and remembered very well. In this state of arousal, the body continues to release hormones such as adrenaline, which, over time, can damage connections within the brain (it can also cause damage to the heart and the immune system). Research has also shown that adrenaline can ultimately shrink the hippocampus – further reducing its ability to place memories in time and space.

The brain is constantly in the process of receiving data, interpreting and analyzing it, and creating action based on that data. It has an enormous capacity to store information and use that information over time. The human brain increases its efficiency by creating internal representations of the external world, or templates. These associations generalize to future events. For example, when I see a door, my brain instantaneously recognizes this and sends a message to my muscles about how to respond. From time to time I may come upon a door that looks nothing like any door I have ever seen in the past, but still my brain can compare it against the template it holds for doors and respond appropriately. This is true of all sensory input, whether it comes in through site, sound, smell, taste, or touch. The sense of smell has been found to make particularly powerful associations in the brain. This is especially evident with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – oftentimes a familiar scent can trigger the autonomic nervous system faster than anything else. (If you look at a diagram of the brain, you will notice that the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for sense of smell, is located within the limbic system).

 

Brain Plasticity

The brain is modified by all experiences, whether they be positive or negative. This is because it has plasticity, meaning that its architecture and pathways of communication can be modified over time. Some areas of the brain, such as the cortex, have more plasticity than others. It is relatively easy to learn the concepts being presented in this paragraph (cortex) but quite difficult to learn to ride a unicycle (reptilian brain). The brain develops and is organized in a use-dependent fashion. It is commonly accepted that “neurons that fire together, wire together”, so the more a neural system is activated and used, the more it will adapt over time. The greater the activity within a neural system, the more the system will develop capabilities related to that type of function. This is true for playing the piano, learning a second language, or responding to a threat – more “practice” means the response becomes more engrained. Once a brain area is organized, it is has less plasticity and is less receptive to incorporating new data (again, it is harder to learn to play the piano as an adult than as a child).

 

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The activation of the autonomic nervous system (increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, etc) in response to danger is a normal, adaptive, and protective biological function. However, PTSD may occur when the ANS continues to engage once the threat is no longer present, leaving the body in an active state of arousal. This may occur if trauma is ongoing, as in repetitive abuse throughout childhood, or when a person is somehow unable to return to a sense of homeostasis and calm after exposure to trauma.

When the brain stores a memory within the limbic system instead of processing through to the cortex, it seems to just float in the hippocampus so that it can be easily accessed. To set the ANS in motion, the amygdala requires only a 10 to 20 percent overlap between a template for danger and a current sensory cue. This is why a seemingly innocuous cue (such as the smell of smoke for someone who has survived a fire) can send the body into fight, flight, or freeze mode. In some cases, a person may be responding to a cue that they are not consciously aware of, such as the slump of another person’s shoulders. Due to the mind-body connection, the amygdala may also interpret danger when the ANS is aroused for some other reason. For example, if heart rate was elevated during a traumatic event, later acceleration of the heart rate (while exercising) can signal danger to the amygdala.

From the standpoint of survival, it is preferable for the brain to over generalize signals of danger than to under generalize. But emotionally speaking, this can wreak havoc on a person’s life. Traumatized individuals may be more vulnerable to making false associations and interpreting danger in an environment where none exists. Due to plasticity, the more the autonomic nervous system is engaged, the more this pattern becomes ingrained. The more this pattern is ingrained, the more the ANS will be set off. This is the cycle of living with PTSD. In addition, an experience that sets off the body’s alarm response can alter the sensitivity of that alarm response. Over time, even non-sensory cues (remembering the event) can signal the amygdala and lead to an emotional response of fear.

 

Brain Plasticity – the good news

Although the brain has less plasticity as it ages and organizes, it can always be altered in significant ways. It is possible to re-train the Limbic System to become less reactive, meaning living with less fear and being triggered back to a trauma less often. Current research is finding that the most effective therapies for clearing trauma involve not emotionally reliving or re-experiencing the trauma but just the opposite. To help move traumatic memory out of the Limbic System, a person must be able to revisit the trauma without activating the Autonomic Nervous System. New methods for working with trauma effectively are constantly being discovered. Some of these methods may have a client talk through aspects of the trauma while keeping the Limbic System calm (clinical hypnosis, Rapid Resolution Therapy). Other methods, such as EMDR and EFT use eye movements or tapping on acupressure points to help the body release the trauma. It is believed that all effective trauma treatments work on a neurological level by creating new neural pathways within the brain. If you are dealing with an unresolved trauma, I encourage you to talk with your therapist about some of these and other techniques.

When traumatic memories get triggered and the ANS becomes activated, there are ways to help calm your system. Just focusing intently on the breath can be extremely helpful (please see the breathing exercises on the front page of this newsletter).  Activities that help to redirect you away from your emotions and towards purposeful relaxation of the body, such as yoga or Tai Chi, can also be effective. Sometimes doing a physical task can not only redirect your thoughts and feelings but also help to engage different parts of the cortex. This could be gardening, artwork, or something mechanical. Tasks that use both hands may be especially effective because they engage both sides of the brain. Many people with PTSD have found that practicing mindfulness and meditation can also reduce their symptoms. While it may be difficult to get into a meditative state once the ANS is activated, regular meditation is one great way to alter the limbic system’s level of reactivity. 

 

In Conclusion

I hope that the information in this article has been informative and that in understanding the brain better, you will have greater compassion for the impact trauma has had on your life or the life of someone you know. If you find that reading about this topic is emotionally challenging, I encourage you to speak with your therapist. If you are not currently in therapy but are interested in starting this process, please consider contacting Karuna or any other therapist for an appointment. 

 

 

 

Resources:
National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/index.jsp

The National Institute of Mental Health
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

 

EMDR
http://www.emdr.com/

EFT
http://www.emofree.com/

Rapid Resolution therapy
http://www.rapidtraumaresolution.org/

 

Book Recommendations

As a general rule, it is best for trauma survivors to avoid reading passages containing explicit description of other people’s trauma. Such material can unnecessarily trigger one’s own trauma experience. Be cautious, and feel free to step away from any reading that causes discomfort. If you believe that the material is worth learning about, please discuss it with your therapist or consider having a friend or partner read the information and relay the important aspects to you.  

Caring for the Child Within — A Manual for Grownups

By Jane Rowan

http://www.janerowan.com/ChildBooklet.htm
 

Outgrowing the Pain: A Book for and About Adults Abused As Children

by Eliana Gil (Author)

http://www.amazon.com/Outgrowing-Pain-Adults-Abused-Children/dp/0440500060/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235746985&sr=1-2

Outgrowing the Pain Together

by Eliana Gil (Author)

http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/0440503728/ref=sr_1_olp_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235746985&sr=1-1

An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s ‘Normal’

by John C. Friel Ph.D. (Author), Linda D. Friel M.A. (Author)

http://www.amazon.com/Adult-Childs-Guide-Whats-Normal/dp/1558740902/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235747061&sr=1-1

The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Revised Edition)

by Wendy Maltz (Author)

http://www.amazon.com/Sexual-Healing-Journey-Survivors-Revised/dp/0060959649/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1235747192&sr=1-1

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