How Brain Science Helps Therapists Heal the Distressed Mind

Dan Siegel on How to Regulate Emotional States Through Mindsight

Dan Siegel

What is a healthy mind? Is it simply the absence of symptoms and dysfunctions, or is there something more to a life well lived? How can we embrace the diversity of behavior, temperament, values, and orientation across a wide range of cultures and still come up with a coherent definition of health?

Over the last twenty years, I've come to believe that integration is the key mechanism beneath both the absence of illness and the presence of well-being. Integration—the linkage of differentiated elements of a system—illuminates a direct pathway toward health. It's the way we avoid a life of dull, boring rigidity on the one hand, or explosive chaos on the other.

In new interventions based on the approach of interpersonal neurobiology, mindsight has helped many people shift the flow of energy and information in their lives toward integration. But why is integration such a powerful tool for transformation? My search for an answer to this question has led to some surprising and practical realizations.

In Search of Integration

As a psychotherapist, I'd worked closely with many people in states of distress, states that to me seemed to be characterized as either rigidity or chaos—or both. Individuals might be stuck in depression or paralyzed by fear. They'd find themselves swept into manic rages or flooded with traumatic memories. Sometimes they'd fluctuate between these extremes, stuck in a whirlwind of energy and information, terrified by minds out of control.

But why rigidity or chaos? Why would dysfunction fall into these two categories, or some combination of the two? And why did these patterns keep recurring?

There was something about these states that seemed the antithesis of the harmony of a more integrated flow. Could these emotional shifts in our lives reflect changes in our states of integration?

The Eight Domains of Integration

In my practice of psychotherapy, eight domains of integration have emerged as keys to personal transformation and well-being. How we experience a "sense of self "—a feeling of who we are over time and of the patterns of energy and information that unfold in our inner lives—will be directly shaped by the degree of integration in these domains. Here is a brief map of the domains.

The Integration of Consciousness

How we focus our attention is the key to promoting integrative changes in the brain. With the integration of consciousness, we actually build the skills to stabilize attention so that we can harness the power of awareness to create choice and change. This is why the integration of consciousness is the foundation for the other domains.

Horizontal Integration

For millions of years, our left brain and right brain have had separate but complementary functions. If the linkage between the sides is blocked, one side may dominate, and we can lose the creativity, richness, and complexity that results from both sides working together. Harnessing the power of neuroplasticity to integrate the brain can give us a newly coherent sense of our life story and deeper insights into the nonverbal world of ourselves and others.

Vertical Integration

Vertical integration can be impaired in response to trauma or in adaptation to living in an emotional desert. In this cut-off state, we ignore what our senses and bodily sensations are telling us and live a life of flattened feelings and perceptions. Bringing our sensations into awareness enables intuition to blossom and sometimes can offer lifesaving information.

Memory Integration

We process and encode our experiences in layers of memory. The puzzle pieces of implicit memory are later assembled into explicit memories—the factual and autobiographical information of which we are aware. The more we can shine the light of mindsight on the free-floating puzzle pieces of the past—the implicit memories—and allow them to become explicit, the more we can free ourselves to live fully in the present and have new choices about how we live our lives.

Narrative Integration

We make sense of our lives by creating stories that weave our left hemisphere's narrator function with the autobiographical memory storage of our right hemisphere. Research has revealed that the best predictor of the security of our children's attachment to us is our ability to narrate the story of our own childhood in a coherent fashion. By detecting blockages to narrative integration and then doing the necessary work to overcome them, we can free ourselves and ultimately our children from the cross-generational patterns we want to avoid creating.

State Integration

Each of us experiences distinct states of being that embody our fundamental drives and needs: closeness and solitude, autonomy and independence, caregiving and mastery, among others. These states may also conflict with one another—sometimes painfully and confusingly.

Mindsight permits us to embrace these states as healthy dimensions of a layered life instead of as parts of ourselves that we need to reject or suppress to try to achieve inner stability.

Interpersonal Integration

This is the "we" of well-being. At best, our resonance circuits enable us to feel the internal world within others, while they in turn weave us into their inner world and carry us with them even when we are not together. Mindsight can help us to see how past adaptations are restricting current relationships and then allows us to open ourselves safely to others. Then we can connect more intimately in relationships while still retaining our own sense of identity and freedom. We can love and be loved without giving up our selves.

Temporal Integration

Uncertainty, impermanence, mortality: These are the profound challenges presented to us by the prefrontal cortex, which gives us both our sense of time and our ability, apparently unique among animals, to foresee that death will undo us and those we love. Obsessive-compulsive disorder reveals how our hardwired survival drive seeks control—sometimes to the point of paralyzing and terrorizing us. Temporal integration enables us to live with more ease and to find comforting connections in the face of uncertainty.

Mindsight and Freedom

Mindsight is the skill that can lead us back to integration. Michelangelo is supposed to have said that his great task as a sculptor was to liberate the figure from the stone. Just so, our task is to find the impediments to the eight domains of integration and liberate the mind's natural drive to heal—to integrate mind, brain, and relationships in the triangle of well-being.

This blog is excerpted from “Complexity Choir". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Children/Adolescents

Tags: brain science | caregiving | compulsive disorder | consciousness | cut-off | Dan Siegel | depression | emotion | HEAL | mindsight | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | brain | integration | the mind | the brain | attachment | networker

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