Host of Forbes' The Failure Factor, Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC, discusses how our early environments shape our adult lives, highlighting how techniques like mindfulness and somatic experiencing can slow our conditioned reaction to cues and stimulants.
Tracy: I'd like to open by touching on the research showing how early childhood experiences affect brain development. Based on your own work in the field, can you describe why this is important to look at?
Megan: Absolutely. We learn how to self-regulate and cope with difficult feelings in an environment that enables us to do so. When evolutionary responses like 'fight-or-flight'--which happen in the reptilian part of our brain called the amygdala--are piqued, it's through the safety of healthy, reliable, and stable relationships that we learn how to manage those uncomfortable feelings and react to them in healthy ways. But if a child grows up in a home where abuse is the norm, or where there is neglect of the child's attachment needs, then ultimately they develop while constantly feeling fearful, feeling anxious, or having that distrust response heightened. Their relation to others is ingrained at such a young age to be on high alert. Therefore they're that much more likely to look towards substances like alcohol, narcotics, food, pornography, etc., to relieve them of that heightened anxiety. These things activate the brain in such a way that helps them feel a sense of joy, security, and safety--albeit fleetingly. They learn to cling on to things or activities, rather than relationships, or being able to just be with themselves.
Now, cognitively speaking, if a person grows up in a home where they're abused, or where there's more criticism than love, or where there is only conditional love, they will internalize that relationship within themselves. So when they're alone, the voice that chatters in their head is a very critical one. They are left running from themselves, or abusing themselves with their own running commentary, which again activates that fight-or-flight response. They experience life under constant threat responses, rather than experiencing life within a frame of compassion, which reduces stress.
A major difference between humans and animals being that our consciousness helps us imagine and predict a threat. Our bodies will send out a biophysical reaction as though it's actually happening (presumably to get us out of harm's way). But the catch 22 is if we tell ourselves, "You're going to flop this presentation", our bodies often react as if we actually did just flop that presentation.
Exactly. Humans have culture and language, and through both of those things we are able to imagine different scenarios than the ones that we're in. In some ways that can be helpful, but oftentimes it's harmful; it creates a lot of anxiety, or under-confidence and inadequacy. So yes, when we're envisioning something bad that might happen, or we're telling ourself that we're not good enough, it really is like having that experience of someone else telling you that.
Again, these things happen due to past experiences. Judgements are more pronounced if a person grew up being judged too harshly. They fear things happening, not because they're making them up, but because they did once happen, so they're on high alert, scanning for them again. Almost like an off-track version of being able to constantly scan our environments to see if a predator is coming through the grass. It's how we were able to get to the moon: we can imagine different possibilities and prepare for them. In many ways anxiety is helpful and motivating, and it helps us get ready for different scenarios that we might encounter, yet it can go to a point where it's creating scenarios that can paralyze us, or leave us catastrophizing.
You brought up substance abuse. Addictive things have been well documented to intermittently reduce stress. They release dopamine (which excites and uplifts), and endorphins (which soothe and heal the body). It's also noted that people who are over-stressed are more likely to abuse drugs.
Absolutely. Serotonin, dopamine, and opiates all function within our brain the same way, almost regardless of the substance, just as long as the individual has a conditioned compulsion towards it. So that voice inside our head telling us negative things can trigger and drive us to the consumption of whichever substance relieves us of the stress coming from that negative dialogue. Interestingly, the voice inside our head is also a coping mechanism that we can either use or not use. For those who are abusive toward themselves, it becomes that much more terrifying to make a mistake or do something wrong. They don't have a compassionate way of responding to themselves because it was not learned through experience, so they respond by beating themselves up, and often go in the direction of gambling, drugs, etc. So it becomes a perpetual cycle of shame: let's say they go gambling and they lose a few hundred bucks, then they'll beat themselves up for it, but their learned [conditioned] coping mechanism is gambling, because they don't know how to relieve their stress by being kind to themselves internally, so they keep gambling. The same thing happens with overeating, or abusing drugs and so on.
There was a compelling interview on The Current featuring a man named Neil Strauss who was a sex addict, and was incapable of forming genuine, long term, or compassionate relationships to a women. His father was dismissive of his mother and she was an emotional wreck around him because of it, which in turn, damaged his nervous system. It also damaged his internal dialogue and beliefs about women.
Ah yes. I imagine he had a very negative association toward emotions because of that, so he learned to avoid it. In psychology terms, we would say he developed an anxious-avoidant attachment mechanism. Strauss is well known as a pick-up artist having wrote The Game. So it goes without saying that he wasn't very respectful of women, and didn't think they could be independent, which would permeate into a relationship even with an independent women. Because at that point, reality and your internal dialogue don't even have to match. You believe women are a certain way, so if you're with a women who is not this way, you are still on high alert for any sign to point to it. I don't know him or his case personally but others like it often result in objectification of women, or the evasion of any sense of responsibility or caring. It's likely he was also rationalizing his disrespect for women as a way to keep them at arm's length.
So that his nervous system wouldn't go into overdrive.
Yes, it's a very common defence mechanism for those who haven't learned how to deal with those early experiences. It sounds like there's also modelling there: if that was the relationship he witnessed, that's the one he models. We make a lot of our associations of what healthy relationships are by looking at our parents. If he saw what was happening with his parents, he was probably like, "Yikes, I don't want that." That scared him, so even though he might not have been in a situation like it, he's scanning for the threat of it, real or imagined.
You mentioned one of the attachment theories. There's anxious-avoidant attachment, and there are others like anxious-ambivalent. Tell me about these in more detail.
Yes so John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth essentially found that a person's early 'formative' years, which start at birth, have a huge impact on the outset of their lives. Babies need to form some mode of an attachment to a primary caregiver. Usually this is to their mom, but not always. What 'attachment' means of course is a connection through touch, sight, and sound, and often starts from the moment they're breastfeeding. It is based on the caregiver's receptivity to the child, where the child learns either, "I can rely on this person", or "I can't rely on this person". The former being secure attachment, and the latter being insecure attachment. Secure attachment would be where when a baby cries, mom or another primary caregiver comes running and immediately tends to their needs in an affectionate and loving fashion. These needs can be a diaper change, to be fed, or the simple need to be cuddled, which is massively formative.
In secure attachment, the parent is there and tends to those needs, no matter how great or small. But unfortunately, that's just not how it works a lot of the time. I think only about 30% of children develop under secure attachment. Under insecure attachment, there are a few subsets. Let's talk about avoidant-attachment first. Avoidant-attachment can happen if a parent is either abusive or negligent. They never express any kind of love and rarely meet their children's needs, or they do so harshly and critically. So the child learns they can't depend on anyone, and in order to protect themselves they eventually learn how to turn off. They learn not to cry and to not be vulnerable. They disconnect from their caregiver and have great difficulty getting close to another person, often dealing with relationship stressors by 'disassociating'. That would be avoidant attachment.
Ambivalent is the other insecure attachment mode which comes out usually when the parent's affection is unpredictable: they either have a mental illness or addiction, or they're going through some kind of grief or terminal illness. They want to be present and so they have the best of intentions, but they are not stable or consistent with their care. Because of the addiction, the mental illness, or the grief that they might be experiencing, they can often be physically there, but oftentimes they're not emotionally there. Or they're overwhelmingly emotionally there. Actually, it's interesting because now that parents are on phones and tablets so much, many academics and professionals who understand this field are worried that it's going to cause a generation of ambivalent attachment disorders. Caregivers are there, but they're not really there: they're not making eye contact with the baby or talking to the baby because they're zoned in on the phone. This results in very anxious and confused behaviour, they don't feel secure, so they often get very distressed once the parent tunes out.
Generations of parents believed that as long as the children are safe from physical danger, they're okay. But neglect of these seemingly less-important needs is so radically consequential.
Totally. And we have piles of studies that show how human touch, cuddling, and physical presence are necessary for development. A man by the name of Harry Harlow conducted a study with Rhesus monkeys, that showed how infants have an innate biological need to touch and hold on to something for emotional comfort. The monkeys were placed in isolation for either 3, 6, or 12 months, and while they were all highly distressed--rocking back and forth, pulling out their own hair, acting aggressive or fearful towards other monkeys, etc.--the ones who were isolated for the full year never recovered. He also gave infant monkeys surrogate mothers made of either wire or fuzzy cloth. Only half of the wired surrogates, and half of the cloth surrogates would each 'give' milk, while the other half of the wire and cloth surrogates would not. What they found was that the monkeys weren't just drawn to the milk giving aspect of the 'mothers', because the Rhesus monkeys who had cloth surrogates would cling to and cuddle with them whether they gave milk or not, while the Rhesus monkeys who had wire surrogates would not cuddle, even if they did give milk.
There have been so many other studies like this, The Strange Situation is another study by Ainsworth that shows how important reliable, secure affection from a parent is for a child's independence and social exploration capabilities. We're also all familiar with the horrific stories of children that are locked in their bedrooms, or closets in some extreme cases, and how their brains don't develop properly. Consistent, reliable, human touch and affectionate presence are necessary for development.
As someone with 7 years of academic education, and additional years of professional experience, what happens when you encounter people who respond by saying, "So what. Who cares what happened to you in childhood. That was so long ago, get over it."
It's interesting, because you're right: that mentality unfortunately is out there, but I don't think it's serving anyone. There are two parts to your question and I want to make sure I answer both of them correctly. When I meet people who think this way, I try to open the dialogue. I met someone on a plane the other day and we spent the whole five hours talking about this. This stuff is imprinted in us. It's imprinted in our brain, it's imprinted in our nervous system. There are even studies coming out now on transgenerational traumas: Holocaust survivors, or survivors of Canada's residential schools for example, the trauma from these atrocities are held in our bodies, and often it gets carried down generation by generation because of those attachment styles of parenting: their children and their children's children are socialized in a harsh and cold way because the parent is dealing with the previous parent's trauma.
Peter Levine Ph.D. whose background is in medical biophysics wrote Waking the Tiger, a really seminal book that opened the world to his argument that trauma is kept in our bodies. He looked at animals and noticed that after animals were traumatized, they shook rather ardently, or did something else quite extreme physically to burn off the trauma instantaneously, and then they were fine after that. One example he used was a polar bear that got hit with a tranquilizer gun, and obviously they're traumatized in the moment, but they have a mechanism to address it head on, right then. Humans don't do that; we don't have this type of release behaviour. His theory, which author Pat Ogden Ph.D. is also a big proponent of, states that if we hold trauma in our bodies, then through somatic experiencing we can work it out.
Somatic experiencing can even be bodily experiences like yoga or tai chi, if they're all done in the right context of a safe, or non-traumatic environment. Many therapies exist now that help us get into our bodies, including breath work and mindfulness meditation, or Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.'s Mindsight, but also just being able to sit with somebody in a safe environment while they help get us into our bodies and ascertain physically what they're feeling, or emotionally what they're feeling. It's why psychotherapy has been around for so long. It helps address that disconnect they've been living with; that separation of the mind from the body, or the mind from the present moment of its physical reality, that practices like Buddhism have been focused on addressing for millennium.
This all circles back to when people say to just get over it, because what they're missing is that it's not a mental thing. Oftentimes people don't even consciously remember the trauma that happened to them because they were so young, or they blanked it out, but that doesn't mean that their bodies don't remember it, so their bodies are still reacting to it. It hasn't been worked out of the nervous system so they address it with things like addictions and compulsive behaviours, or intense fears that may or may not fit their current realities. We have memories that can exist only in our nervous system, or our neural pathways. So it's not as easy as thinking your way out of it.
The repercussions of which can be seen in a many childhood trauma survivors who act 'tough', often dissociating or clamping down on vulnerability in others. But knowing the science, it makes sense: they were trying to defend themselves.
Absolutely. They had to cut off all of those feelings from others and from themselves, because feeling them would shock the system, and no one safe was there to coach them through it. They don't want to be vulnerable to others because being vulnerable meant being an easy target. It was protective for them. Other examples exist like if somebody gets in a bad car accident, or they come back from combat in the Middle East with PTSD. These events give individuals all the symptoms: flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, anger. They might be overly reactive or violent. Using the example of a car accident where they either lost someone in the car with them, or they almost died themselves. Well, every time they get in a car afterwards, or even see certain parts of a road or street lamps, they're going to have an association of fear, because the body and the senses remember it.
I myself was in an accident when I was 18. I was very lucky that nothing happened to me physically, but I couldn't drive for about five years afterwards, and I still have trouble driving now. I had all the symptoms: the flashbacks, horrible nightmares, you name it. While travelling on a Greyhound once afterwards, I envisioned the bus going off the road and truly thought it was happening. It was midnight, so everyone was asleep and I just started screaming. I wasn't consciously choosing to think this, but it was a reaction my body had as a way of trying to protect me.
With PTSD, one car accident is far less impactful of course, than something like women experiencing years of their husband coming home drunk and beating them up. Those types of traumas are going to really hammer into someone. For myself, I learned that cars aren't always safe, and now understand the possibility that I might die when I'm in a car. But a person who grows up in a family full of abuse and neglect, well they learn that humans are not safe. The people that were supposed to love them and take care of them, and shape how they reacted to the world did not do that. And yes, that will impact who they become.
We learn it in high-school biology class. If you touch a hot stove and burn your hand, then afterwards when you even sense the heat is on, your arm will jerk out of the way. It short-circuits the brain to keep you out of danger. You don't have to sit and contemplate whether that red glow means it's hot or not.
Yes, these are the very first things we learned about evolution and about neurobiology. As a therapist, we now have that chance to intervene and help coach a person through past traumas so that this natural evolutionary reaction doesn't do a disservice to them. Because they exist in positive ways if that threat is still present--like a hot stove where you want to be able to move your hand out of the way without having to think about it. But for a person coming back from Iraq, well they aren't going to be threatened by every fast moving shadow they see anymore. Their environments have changed.
Similar to an assault victim who isn't going to be violated by every man she meets, but the body doesn't know how to differentiate without processing out that trauma. So the first step with my job, is to help a client re-create a sense of safety within our relationship. They need to have a sense of control because often the person has been through trauma, feels vulnerable, doesn't trust others, or feels that there is a judgement that isn't actually happening. For many, they've spent a long time trying to regulate those very uncomfortable feelings through addiction, or through isolation, so connecting has become very hard. But that's the first step to showing them that the world can be different.
Two great role models are Bryan Stevenson and Adam Foss who both advocate for criminal justice system reform. Since adverse child rearing can determine who is more likely to engage in crime, it becomes pertinent to look at. A person may commit theft to feed a heroin habit to soothe the effects of PTSD, because trauma processing programs or sessions with professionals like yourself aren't guaranteed for them.
That's something I often talk about. At one time for someone, heroin served a purpose. They're trying to survive, and maybe heroin was the only way they could survive without their nervous systems going into overdrive. It's an act of desperation - nobody wants to be an addict, nobody joyfully chooses that life after multiple prison sentences and trips to the ER. There's a point where it's no longer a choice to seek out heroin or any of these self-medication methods. I'd be hard pressed to find one person who wanted to destroy their relationships, lose their job, or become homeless, but unfortunately it's the only way they knew how to deal with the immense overstimulation and chronic fight-or-flight response their body has in reaction to the everyday. Additionally, when people who have gone through trauma don't have a secure family network or solid friendships around them, it's exceedingly difficult to get out of these ingrained responses, because nothing else exists in their life to calm or soothe them.
UK journalist Johann Hari wrote a book detailing the research that shows how an absence of affectionate human connection in adulthood is the main cause of addiction. Does this hold true? Is it still important for adults to be connected?
He's the one who says, "The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection." I think that's a really profound statement. We can view addiction in the form of drug addiction, obesity from over-eating, debt from compulsive gambling, physical injury from obsessive over-exercise, eating disorders like anorexia, they're all an addiction: the person can not stop despite adverse consequences. They're coping with stress or loneliness with substances or activities. So what's important to look at, is this connection with others, but also ultimately learning how to develop a connection with ourselves: being able to be alone, or sit with our pain, and in that, perhaps a connection with spirituality.
The AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] programs are successful in part due to that, and while I'm conflicted about AA, there's still a good focus on learning how to connect, both to others and to themselves. So it's a great start for them to be with other people. Rejection or neglect from an adult partner can also trigger a need to be with others because it can be so painful for them, that they need the soothing of friends and family. That's what everybody wants and needs: acceptance and to belong. So for some, that may be where they learn about security for the first time, where they can now feel calm, where there's not that fear or that constant state of fight-or-flight.
If a person is dealing with social anxiety, you don't want to just throw them in with a crowd of strangers. It might have to be a slower process. Is therapy a good place to grow or showcase a trusting relationship to them?
Yes it's absolutely our job to help the individual by giving them a place where they can avoid shame, and where they feel heard, where they feel validated. They need space to be able to be themselves and have that accepted. It's our job to help them experience a new reaction to who they are. If they grew up having learned, "When I cry you don't like me." So if we give them a space where they can cry and we're still there and we're still listening, that's what we call a corrective emotional experience. It helps give our clients a different experience than what they know. When someone cries in a session and then tells me, "Oh my god, I feel so stupid I'm crying." I just ask if we can talk about that. I'll tell them, "Let's talk about why you apologized for crying right now."
It starts with that sense of safety within the relationship, but also helping them tap into their relationship with themselves. By noticing how they respond to themselves when they're crying, and picking up on those things is how you help coach them out of that thinking. If they can say, "I'm such an idiot, I don't know why I keep doing this to myself. I don't know why I just can't stop drinking." then we can point to that dialogue as a partial reason why they do keep repeating that behaviour. They're stressed out.
So let's say someone developed a coping mechanism of drinking or even bulimia (which both have a whole science behind why they both reduces stress due to Serotonin activity in the brain) when they were in the midst of a very abusive relationship, or when they were living at home with parents that were neglecting them. They learned how to use food or alcohol to feel better, and in fact to survive intense dysregulation of feelings [which is also just biochemistry], because they didn't learn how to cope any other way. It's important to note that for them it was actually saving them. It was a way of protecting themselves and helping to get through the day with enough energy let over to survive. It served them for years, but maybe it's not serving them anymore. I believe a big part of doing any professional work with addiction or trauma is acknowledging that the behavior served a purpose at a time, and that it wasn't coming from a place of self-harm or ignorance.
Many professionals in the field bring up shame as a well-researched aspect of the cycle of addiction, habits, or compulsive behaviour. We know it can prevent a bad habit from forming during the first or second try, but once something has become an ingrained behaviour, does shame actually encourage the act because it's their stress reduction mechanism?
Yes certainly, we see it with so many compulsive drinkers. Friends and family say, "Stop doing that, you're ruining your life." But for someone who has learned that drinking helps them become social, or funnier, or more relaxed, well that's their relief when they feel lonely, rejected, or stressed out - they've learned that drinking is the answer. So when you shame them or make them feel all these negative feelings about themselves, that's going to drive someone to drink. The same thing with smoking, they know there's a risk of cancer and birth defects and tooth decay, but that might stress them out so much they need to reduce that stress - and the've been conditioned to reduce stress by picking up a cigarette.
I also think this is a huge contributing reason to why we have a culture of obesity. People are told constantly that they need to lose weight, "Do this, do that." They know that if they didn't overeat and they were active daily, it would help their weight, but they're made to feel stupid, when that's not the case. So people feel ostracized. They get in this binge/restrict cycle where they think, "I have to starve myself." And then of course their body goes into starvation mode, and they end up binging on a whole box of Oreos or Doritos.
Denial also increases drive toward something because the motivating chemical dopamine is heightened. It's in part what B.F. Skinners' Intermittent Reinforcement studies show us. Salience increases with excitement and challenge.
Exactly, it creates an emotional connection or an emotional association with food. As you said, the more positively you think about something, the more of an emotional connection and drive you develop towards it. With shame and denial, there is this constant judgmental narrative and feelings of comfort mixed with fear all happening inside rather than just learning how to eat intuitively, which obviously is easier said than done in our society with food on every corner and in every store between.
What are the different types of therapies for getting rid of trauma's effects? Well all know about talk therapy, and I know of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction [MBSR] and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT], but what is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Clients bring their focus to the therapist's waving finger, or connect a machine that theoretically results in rapid alternating between the right and left sides of the brain. The theory behind it is that it's supposed to mimic REM sleep, standing for Rapid Eye Movement sleep. Now REM sleep is our dream sleep where a lot of processing and development happens. Newborns get about 16 hours of REM per night; adults get somewhere around three. We get less and less REM as we get older. REM is when we have those really deep dreams when our bodies seem almost paralyzed. There are theories that say this is when we process trauma. From an individual experience, I really believe that. I'm a very vivid dreamer, and for anyone who's ever been through grief, they'll be the same. It's like having dreams about a person you've lost in your life. The idea with EMDR is through mimicking this REM like state, were actually processing those traumas, but doing so actively in the therapy room. The other big one is Somatic Experience therapy. That's what Peter Levine worked on with getting into your body as I mentioned before. The focus is on teaching the body and mind new ways of responding to the physical symptoms of trauma.
Judith Herman, M.D. wrote a great book called Trauma and Recovery. She walks through a three-stage model of healing trauma, but no matter what method a therapist takes, creating a sense of safety for your client in the therapeutic relationship is an integral step. I had a client a few weeks ago who came in with trauma. She wanted to tell the story right away, and that can actually be really harmful when you're working with somebody, because again they don't have that sense of control, and a big part of trauma like sexual abuse or assault is not having had those boundaries. They're often all over the place around strangers because they don't feel in control. Their sense of not feeling in control is manifested in their behaviors around new faces, so they might be exhibiting what others would perceive to be inappropriate behavior, but it's because they don't know how to maintain their own boundaries. One of the biggest parts of working with a client like this is helping them develop their boundaries again.
The common thread is making sure that nobody feels like they have to share their story right away, and in fact stopping them from sharing the story right away if they just launch into it, because you really have to build a strong relationship of trust, and depending on whether you are EMDR focused, or semantically focused, or talk therapy focused, you still need that relationship of trust so you don't re-traumatize someone. With somatic therapy there is more of an emphasis on default response. Peter Levine talks about regulating and pendulating. Pendulating is a good approach for a person who has a lot of feelings and a lot of energy trapped inside themselves. We want to help them cope with those, so it's like exposure therapy in a way.
Explain exposure therapy briefly.
Exposure therapy would be if say someone was afraid of snakes. You could help them get over their fear of snakes by slow exposure in a safe environment. First you could talk about snakes, then you could help them imagine snakes, and then you could move towards showing them a picture of a snake, then putting a fake snake in the corner of the room (with their knowledge of you doing so), and eventually they could hold a fake snake, and then you would finally introduce a real snake. But you would do so without surprise, and you would always approach carefully and with encouragement. The whole way, you would be processing and very slowly helping them get exposed to it.
We can also do that with anxiety, or irritability, or even public speaking (which Toastmasters does to an art - it's a form of processing and exposure). The thing with our trauma therapy and the exposure therapy is to move away from actual thoughts because it's the feelings we're so afraid of. So you'd say, "Let's sit with that fear right now. What's it like in your body? What's going on with your breath right now?" A person might be holding their breath and not even know it.
Like mindfulness meditation, or MBSR.
Very much. It's very mindfulness-based. It's really important to start learning how to turn inward to those feelings in the therapy room where you have a therapist. Pendulating is where you would tap into what you are feeling in your body, moving in and out between the mind and the body, and helping the person exposed himself or herself to those feelings, where the result is to rid the body of the stress response to the fear of those feelings.
It's interesting because if the person doesn't know how to self regulate which comes from a caregiver showing them how to sit with those uncomfortable feelings while knowing they're still safe, it's hard for them to know how to be kind to themselves. They want to be more reactive. We can say, "Sit with it, stay with those uncomfortable feelings", but of course, for some people it's fucking impossible to do that. It's way harder for someone who struggles with addiction to sit with their craving especially when mixed with that shame or desire, because they're going to be much more reactive. Mindfulness, I really do believe, is the overarching solution for everything. Not just addiction, but obesity, stress, hyper-activity, everything.
Basically mindfulness is taking ourselves from the reptilian brain or the 'back' brain, around to the frontal lobe which exists in the cerebral cortex, or the 'grey matter' of the brain. The frontal lobe is our logical, decision-making, processing center. It actually develops right until we're 25, so it takes the longest. Unfortunately, that development can be delayed or damaged, particularly if we were using substances from an early age. So an individual who has delays in the development of the frontal lobe is not going to have as much impulse control and rationality. It's so sad, because a person might be abused while growing up, and as a result, their brain doesn't develop properly. As a result they might turn towards heroin or even abuse pharmaceuticals as their only available coping mechanism, which further stunts their brain development. They truly don't have the cognitive capacity to carefully calculate long-term repercussions of their actions.
They're still primarily using that reptilian, impulsive part of their brain.
Exactly. They're more likely to act like a 14 year old than a 28 year old. We know teenagers are notoriously impulsive, self-centered, and they seek highly stimulating things because they don't have a frontal lobe that is fully developed yet. They don't have as much foresight, and they aren't deterred by consequences, which is all the same as someone who doesn't have a fully developed brain. But unfortunately we blame them and tell them they brought these things on themselves.
Well I've taken up our full hour already. Any last comments?
Well certainly that many of the problems that exist in society and within ourselves, both individually and systemically, are a result of not knowing how to deal with our uncomfortable emotions. But uncomfortable emotions are a part of life, they're inevitable. You are going to experience grief, you're going to experience pain, sadness, fear, anxiety, and all these emotions. But it's important to have them, they exist to tell us something. But glorify those who only seem calm and positive because those emotions are easier for us to deal with, so as a result people try to turn off those negative emotions and try to muscle through them.
The answer on a systemic level and an individual level, is to be able to help people acknowledge that emotions are normal and healthy, and it's important to get to know them. Secondly it's crucial to learn how to respond to them healthfully, rather than reacting impulsively. The way to do that is through mindfulness: to sit and let yourself feel them. Even something like anger is not inherently bad. But the reaction to the anger can often be bad. Now we know that through techniques like mindfulness meditation, we can actually create a space in which we choose how to react. Through mindfulness practice, which is essentially just paying attention to our inner experience, we can delay the time between feeling anger and reacting with anger; in that time we can think whether or not screaming at or punching a person for something they did will be a reaction you'd like to choose. Because it's the aggression in that reaction that is harmful to us.
In therapy we can guide these types of practises in a safe and trusting environment. No matter what's done or said in therapy, every study consistently shows that it's the relationship that's the vehicle of the therapy. People do the best work when they feel a connection to the therapist. That's actually the first place where a person can feel connection, like I said before, opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it's connection. Feeling connection in general, regardless of what's said, regardless of what's done, is an intervention in itself. A therapist helps you understand yourself better so you can move forward through life in a way where you can encounter whatever it throws at you, because it's not about being happy all the time, it's not about not avoiding certain feelings. It's learning to cope with these feelings so that they don't sideline you, so you're not overwhelmed by them. You can still live your life alongside these unpredictable experiences.
Thanks Megan, it was so nice to chat about all this with you. Keep up the great work!
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