Biology to our psychology

I attended a workshop presented by Bonnie Badenoch, who wrote the book, Brain Wise Therapy for therapists. Thereafter, I became very interested in the work of Dr. Dan Siegel – a psychiatrist at UCLA. Bonnie B. studied under Dr. Siegel in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and developed a model that therapists can use with their clients. This approach breaks down the science of psychology. For instance, those individuals who have experienced trauma may find themselves re-traumatized, knowingly or not, years after the original incident. Instead of feeling ashamed or incompetent when we are faced with difficult situations, we can explore the neurobiological impact of the original incident and learn mindful ways to heal. Dr. Siegel suggests that there are actually measurable changes in brain activity after experiencing psychotherapy.

Bonnie’s model also integrates attachment theory.  The idea is that individuals who have had trouble with having healthy attachments in relationships have most likely encountered the pain of feeling unloved, unprotected, threatened, and/or afraid at some point in life. Whatever happened to make them feel this way is the original event that becomes part of our implicit memory. Implicit memory lies below our radar of consciousness. Thus when we encounter something in our present life that reminds us of the original event (e.g. redintegration, or olfactory memory), we react to protect ourselves even thought the present circumstance does not call for it. For example, if I was baking chocolate chip cookies with my grandpa when he had a stroke, whenever I smell chocolate chip cookies, I may experience panic or anxiety. The panic made sense when my grandpa had a stroke, but it does not make sense to panic every time I smell or have a chocolate chip cookie. What a tragedy that would be.

Another example is if a boy grew up in a household where his parents were always yelling and he became scared, tense, and would hide in the closet, he may grow up to find that he avoids arguments at all costs, especially when it escalates to yelling. The physical tension he experiences in disagreements as an adult may affect his ability to express himself or trust others in relationships.

When our ways of reacting to events as adults is consistent with the biological programming of our past, it feels out of our control. And it is not that there is something wrong with us, but more that we do not know what else to do so we react. We may avoid bakeries or grocery aisles with chocolate chip cookies. We end a relationship as soon as our partner raises his/her voice.

The silver lining is that psychotherapy can provide a way for individuals to heal. Bonnie’s work shows therapists how to teach their clients to safely re-experience the intense feelings of the original traumas and decrease the intensity using mindfulness techniques. The non-secular but meditative breathing and relaxation can allow us to affect the biological process that cause the intense emotional reactions.

More specifically, emotions are governed by the limbic system which includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus among other structures. Emotions, and other experiences, are neurons firing and sending messages to the central nervous system to help our bodies to react. When sensing a threat, this is also when fight, flight, or freeze occurs. In order for us to process the intense emotion in a healthy way, we need to articulate the entire experience and comprehend it. This is done when neurons fire from the right hemisphere to the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for our reasoning abilities) and the left hemisphere of the brain (language abilities). However, if we cannot articulate/comprehend our intense emotions, the firing gets “trapped” so to speak, in our amygdala in the right hemisphere of the brain. When this happens, people experience intense emotions but are at a loss for words. Conversely, some people can verbalize experience and comprehend but are disconnected from their emotions. These individuals can rationalize but cannot identify their feelings or where they feel emotions in their body (e.g. nervousness in the abdomen, anxiety in the chest).  Both of these situations illustrate what interpersonal neurobiology calls an unintegrated brain. An integrated brain is demonstrated when an individual can observe their reactions, differentiate between the present and the original trauma incident, and verbalize the experience. Over time and with practice, a person can give a coherent narrative connecting the original trauma event to his/her present situation and articulate the emotional and physical effects. A trained therapist can facilitate this experience and help individuals become more aware of the biology behind their psychology. This approach removes the stigma, helps people break unhealthy patterns and learn how to manage emotions, and overcome the difficulty.

In this manner, we learned that the problem is not the person, but how they have learned to cope with it. Interpersonal neurobiology does not view the person as inherently defective, but as a series of biological activity that requires re-training. It is a non pathological model that seems to be doing well in helping clients with attachment traumas among a variety of other mental health issues. Although not every single problem will be resolves, using this approach can at least help us manage some of them better so the world becomes less threatening.

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