The brain is complex..I know I am amazed at my insight! I attended a course this weekend on ‘Brain -Based attachment Interventions to transform troubled Lives’, a mouthful of a title! It was run by Dan Hughes & Jonathan Baylin who co-wrote the book (1). It was interesting in parts but also, as is the case with most courses. leaves me wanting more concrete answers about how to correct the damage inflicted by early childhood trauma.
The fact that neuroscience is making massive advances, telling us in greater detail how our brains actually function is information that I feel all therapists must take the time to learn. For a long time now, I have been saying that neurology and psychology must work more collaboratively, obviously it is not just me saying this! The neuroscience was simplified and I shall attempt to simplify it even further.
The joy of connection that mammals seek is not replicated in other species such as reptiles. As humans we strive for connection and in our early years, without it we are in a state of fear..if we are not fed, watered etc then we will die, literally. Therefore we connect to the primary carer. If the primary carer is unsafe, then this causes massive pain and distress to our systems, they overload. This pain can be so great, so threatening that our brain helps us to avoid feeling pain by shutting down our pain receptors. The pain of knowing that our caregivers are unable or incapable of keeping us safe is a primal wound.
Good care triggers the release of feel good chemicals in our brains (endorphins, oxytocin, Dopamine systems). But chemicals are also released if we are under sever stress ( cortisol, CRF, Dynorphin) and these suppress our attachment needs and prevent us from attaching. Dynorhin actually blocks pain, preventing us from hurting but also creates chronically bad moods, because if we are too happy then we forget to look for the threats around us. Our guard would come down and then the threat will enter, a threat to life.
Photo by Vincent Delegge on Unsplash
Unsafe care means that we are always on guard against attack, unsafe care hurts. The primitive brain is always on alert, seeking threat. The Amygdala (we have 2 amygdalae) are on each side of our brain and identifies threat within 50 milliseconds, it scans and seeks out risk before we consciously identify the threat. The connection runs from the Thalmus to the amygdala before being processed by the cortex. The Amygdala works prenatally ( before we are even born!) and stores our implicit memories but without context or time to frame them; they are memories without time or place. It is not language based but instinctive. Therefore the attack that comes from attachment based behaviours is not personal, they do not attack you, they attack a threat…
The Hippocampus also lies on both side of the brain ( we have 2 Hippocampi) and does not start it’s work until the 2nd or 3rd year of life. It is associated with learning and emotions, memory, feelings and reactions. It helps us to process and retrieve ( 2):
Declarative relationships: Relating to facts and figures such a learning lines or speeches.
Spatial involves pathways or routes i.e taxi drivers memorising routes.
Short term memories are turned into long term memories and then stored elsewhere.
Nerve cells continue to develop throughout our lives, new nerve cells are generated.
In severe depression, the Hippocampus looses volume, and this is linked with stress and depression, where it can shrink by up to 20%. In depression it can be 10% smaller than those without this condition. It is unclear if it is affected by condition such as stress or stress is created because this area of the brain is smaller.
Before the Hippocampus developed our memories have no story attached. This part of our brain contextualises what a person sees and hears, it gives a sense of when and where it happened in their memory cues. It becomes a remembered memory rather than the person reliving it, this integration prevents it from being a re-traumatising event. The Hippocampus is susceptible to stress and gets shut down when a person is triggered, as if they go ‘off line’.
The Cingulate Cortex is only found in mammals, in the middle brain and has a lot to do with empathy. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex ( ACC) at the front of the brain is highly susceptible to stress and can be ‘turned off’, which is detrimental to giving care to a deregulated person or child. It contributes to the regulation of :
“…autonomic and endocrine responses, pain perception and the selection and initiation of motor movements. Other areas of the ACC are involved in various aspects of cognition, ie decision making and management of social behaviours.” ( 2)
The Pre- frontal Cortex is the problem solving part of the brain, the coordinator but needs calmness from the Amygdala to work effectively.
The Subdural Regional’s 25 needs to be awakened but not overwhelmed to make the frontal limbic connections. THC helps to calm this region of the brain. Cannabanoids are naturally released in order that we feel calm but Opioids slow us down. Our body produces chemicals that directly affect our moods.
That is the brain bit explained…In attachment disordered individuals they cease to know their bodies, hot from cold, hungry from full. If early abuse is added into the mix and is severe i.e sexual abuse, survivors of abuse can turn off their physical sensations and stop feeling pain, they are unable to auto-regulate so they need a regulated person to help them learn how to regulate themselves, they find change difficult to cope with, become fragmented and dissociative. Dynorphin is believed to be the chemical that is released which suppresses pain, therefore the job in hand, protection at all costs, can be continued without interruption.
This suppression of feelings stops or limits empathy as closeness is the same as being unsafe. Individuals become adept at lying as they can suppress the reality and truly believe the lies crafted to keep them from shame. They will become super self reliant and will often steal non essential items, and then deny it. They will have chronic mistrust and be on hyper alert for threat, seeing control as a means of ensuring their survival. The behaviours mask the reason for the blocking of feelings, all the care giver sees are the behaviours that push them away very effectively .
To deal with development trauma disorder, according to Hughes ( 3) they need:
Reciprocal relational Engament
Positive Affect Enhancers
A child effected in such a way does want to be sad, scared or vulnerable. Joy is frightening because it means that the hyper-vigilance, the security detail warding off danger, are lowered making an attack likely. This constant rejection for care givers is a major issue and they must be treated with respect and care.
People affected by early trauma have a poorly developed Default Mode Network ( DFN), which is the part in the middle brain where reflection on self and curiosity are explored. This party of the brain is not accessed and therefore making sense of ourselves, trauma, life events are not processed. Thus, individuals with early trauma fail to learn from their actions because self reflection is needed in order to learn and change.
As therapists &/or caregivers we need to calm the limbic system, soothe the Amygdala, as Hughes says we need become ‘Amygdala whisperers’. His approach is to use conversation, curiosity, playfulness in order to connect with wounded clients. We need to teach that sadness is ok and not life threatening, and storytelling is part of the process, for it integrates our younger selves, our history, our ancestors into a time frame that makes sense. Storytelling reminds us that all our memories are in the past.
Hughes & Baylin: “Brain Based Attachment Interventions to Transform troubled Lives”
Image of brain: by Raman Oza from Pixabay