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|Brain to Brain - Page 4|
It's Over Now
In addition to memories for events, the body and brain hold muscle memories, autonomic arousal patterns, visceral and perceptual responses, which attest to our experiences. Brain-scan research on traumatic memory informs us that, when trauma is remembered, subcortical, nonverbal areas of the brain, rather than narrative memory areas, are activated. Narrative retelling of events causes these neural networks to fire, but doesn't necessarily contribute to changing them in a way that leads to an experience of relief. What therapist hasn't treated dozens or even hundreds of clients who continue to experience a sense of threat and danger long after they've found physical safety? Before neuroscience research, we had no way of knowing that their experiences were encoded in body structure—in the nervous system, and in patterns of movement and sensation. To know that "It's over now," these clients must feel a sense of safety in the body.
How do we help our clients experience that sense, both in therapy and in the wider world? Here, neuroscience comes to aid us once again. Brain-scan research on the effects of meditation has pinpointed a part of the brain that becomes active when we meditate or simply observe our experience, moment-by-moment, without reacting to it: the medial prefrontal cortex, located just behind the middle of your forehead, has direct connections to the amygdala, our emotional memory center. When that area becomes more active, the amygdala becomes less active.
Translated into psychotherapy, mindful observation yields a state of dual awareness, by which observers can reach into their inner worlds without becoming overwhelmed by emotions and body responses. Although I have always liked the psychodynamic concept of an "observing ego," teaching clients to have an "observing ego" has often been challenging. Each time my client Terry was faced with a family health problem of any kind, this daughter of an alcoholic mother would suddenly experience intense anxiety: a worried thought would set off body sensations of an increased heart rate and tightness in the chest, which, in turn, would lead to negative predictions, which would quickly escalate from simple anxiety to panic. The link between mind and body gives us humans an evolutionary advantage: thoughts and instincts alert us to danger. Unfortunately, this link feeds anxiety, as thoughts activate body sensations and body sensations activate thoughts. Terry would arrive for sessions in a state of desperation, convinced that her husband had cancer or her daughter would never be able to function without her.
At such times, I quickly found my body responding with equal desperation, eager to help her see that these were thoughts, not truths; but each time I heeded my body's first message, she'd respond, "But you don't understand!" If I wanted her to engage her mindful brain, I needed to use my body and mind in a different way. Remembering her quick, curious intellect and her observation that her fears irritated her family members, the next time I felt my body tighten up and my heart rate increase, I paused to let the sensations settle. As I felt the calm and relaxation in my own body, I let her come to the end of her litany before speaking softly and gently, "It's so frightening, isn't it? To think that something could happen to your loved ones. It drives you to find something to prevent it, and that drives them crazy!"
I lean forward with warmth and excitement, "Terry, I know you hate it when these fears push your husband and daughter away, and I'm so happy to say that I've just thought of a way for you to get some relief. Isn't that exciting?" Now, I'm smiling broadly, and I can feel the excitement in my body. She responds. My left brain has spoken to her left brain, reminding it that her husband and daughter are pushing her away in response to the anxiety, while my right brain speaks to her right brain, offering a comforting tone and the pleasurable excitement of a way out. Over the next few weeks, as I teach her how to be mindful of the anxiety, rather than react to it, we practice observing each symptom as "just" a body sensation or "just" a thought or "just" an emotion.
As we do so, Terry finds herself relaxing and feeling calmer, which is followed spontaneously by a more positive thought or two. The use of mindful tracking helps her recognize the interaction between her thoughts and her body's autonomic responses. She now can see how body reactions to a traumatic trigger in turn trigger fearful beliefs, and how changing the body responses leads naturally, without effort, to more positive thoughts. She looks and feels solider now, and can catch herself when the more familiar patterns of her anxiety response engage automatically. In her presence, my body feels like that of a mother seeing her child able to negotiate the world successfully and independently. I feel warmth and pride. I feel solider, too.