|Ethics Brain Science Narcissistic Clients Clinical Mastery Alan Sroufe Attachment Trauma Mary Jo Barrett Community of Excellence Symposium 2012 Wendy Behary Gender Issues Linda Bacon CE Comments Attachment Theory Diets Mindfulness Couples Men in Therapy Anxiety Future of Psychotherapy David Schnarch Etienne Wenger Great Attachment Debate Challenging Cases Clinical Excellence Mind/Body The Future of Psychotherapy William Doherty Couples Therapy|
|Brain to Brain - Page 3|
As my immersion in the clinical applications of neuroscience proceeded, I began noticing how calming my new awareness of the brain could be for me. I grew more and more aware of a small but caring distance between my observing mind and my sensations, feelings, and thoughts, as if one part of my brain were holding another part with great curiosity and kindness. So, instead of just reacting internally when a patient angrily challenged me, I'd watch my limbic reaction and my autonomic nervous system get heated up. Internally, I'd repeat, "Heated, heated, heated." This capacity to observe and name gave my brain room to recover a nurturing sense of inner calm. In fact, research tells us that just naming our emotions accurately, without judgment, causes a balancing shift toward the left hemisphere.
So I learned to watch myself watching my own brain. As a longtime meditator, I recognized a subtle difference between mindfulness based on awareness of the breath, for example, and mindfulness that included awareness of the brain. Many trauma survivors struggle with traditional mindfulness because focusing on their inner worlds initially draws them toward the abuse, rather than toward calmness. In contrast, the concreteness and left-brain fascination of thinking about brain processes typically gives patients the ability to maintain the same small but caring distance I'd experienced myself, as well as a language that can help activate and integrate circuits in both hemispheres.
That same week, Jolene, a longtime patient who'd survived many years of severe childhood trauma, came to the session in a familiar hypervigilant state that signaled trouble for our work together. We often had to tiptoe around the memories, lest she slip so deeply into them that the connection between us was lost. I imagined her brain tangled in a series of neural knots, disconnected from each other and from the modulating neurocircuits that had a chance of soothing her terror. The image was so persistent that I decided to describe to her what I was seeing in my mind.
She instantly became more alert, with a new mix of curiosity and hopefulness. "I always feel like my father's a monster right in the room with me when I remember," she said. "But as you say this, I can see all that's left is a bunch of neurons firing, making my nervous system upset." She began to breathe more deeply without any conscious effort and her hands relaxed in her lap. Throughout the rest of the session, she was much better able to stay connected, not only with me but with her own adult self.
While therapy with this kind of trauma is long, slow, and often difficult, Jolene has commented that awareness of her brain has been invaluable. For the first time, there's been laughter in our sessions and a new sense of ease. As Jolene puts it, "It's like we're holding my brain in our four hands right here in the space between us."
The Empathy of Brain Awareness
A growing body of research tells us that our earliest relationships create "mental models," perceptions about ourselves and relationships, held below the level of awareness, that permeate every thought and action pattern throughout life. In other words, the brain is one big anticipation machine, so if we're hated by our mothers from birth, we may anticipate (and then perceive or actually create) rejection by everyone we encounter.
The two most striking aspects of implicit mental models are that when they arise in the present, they feel like fact and are experienced as emanating from something that's happening in the moment. They have no time stamp to tell us that they're linked to the past. If a person was often hit as a young child, when someone raises a hand nearby, his body may flinch as though he's about to be hit, even though his conscious mind knows it's just a friend waving.
I've come to understand that the greater the early wounding, the more helpless people are in the face of these patterns. As a result, any tendency to feel critical or frustrated by people in my life who have difficulty changing their way of seeing themselves or operating within relationships has increasingly evaporated, leaving in its wake a sea of compassion for the neural trap holding them prisoner.
Delightfully and unexpectedly, this increase in empathy and understanding has extended even to me. Under stress, I can become one bossy, controlling person, to the detriment of everyone in our household. One day, after I'd spent an hour or so telling everyone what to do, I suddenly felt that small but caring distance that allowed me to see my brain and nervous system more clearly. As I stopped giving orders, I felt the zing of anxiety in my chest, accompanied by the apparently irrational fear that everything would fall into chaos if I stopped herding the family. Then, instead of criticizing myself for bad behavior, I was filled with compassion for the child in me who'd experienced daily chaos for many years and had come to believe that control must be maintained at all costs. Being able to hold that inner state in compassion instantly soothed the terror, allowing me to change my behavior. As an added bonus, the critical voices inside—neurally embedded in childhood as well—became less strident and more easily soothed.