Brain to Brain

Applying the Wisdom of Neuroscience in Your Practice

September/October 2008

Anyone who's ever worked with trauma survivors knows the therapeutic challenge of helping them deal with the overwhelming emotional cascade so often triggered by seemingly innocent life events. I recall one client once telling me a story about how even the most mundane errand could leave her in a state of helpless terror. "Yesterday, I was trying to do the grocery shopping," she recounted. "I saw a man who looked like my father, panicked, and almost threw up. I had to leave my cart and get out of the store." Too often, no matter how skillful we may be at helping trauma survivors deal with their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, they can be overcome by the bewildering intensity of their feelings.

Five years ago, in search of more effective tools for working with such clients, I attended the annual Attachment Conference at UCLA and there, for the first time, plunged deeply into the scientific thicket of our emerging understanding of early-brain development and neurobiological functioning. In particular, I remember listening to psychiatrist Dan Siegel describing the difference between what happens in an infant's brain when things go well and when things go badly. Suddenly, I felt the mesh between the unimaginably complicated patterns of neural firings he was asking us to picture and the miraculous dance of lived experience and emotional attachment. My response surprised me, since I'm a person who was too squeamish about the inner workings of the body…

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