Tag Archives: Neuroplasticity Articles

3 Ways To Repair Brain Damage Caused By Protracted Childhood Trauma

 

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We have already seen in other articles that I have posted on this site that significant and protracted childhood trauma can physically damage the developing brain and have an adverse effect upon the body’s physiology as a whole. In particular, it can:

– effect the way that the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus interact

which, in turn, can:

– lead to massive over-production of stress hormones in the body such as cortisol

which results in:

a constant state of feeling under threat, extreme vulnerability, agitation, anxiety, fear and even (and I can confirm this from my own unhappy experienced) terror.

 

Because of these physical brain changes and the accompanying alteration in the body’s biology, any dysfunctional behaviours they lead to, such as disproportionately violent responses to perceived threat (to take just one example from myriad possible others), are very hard to change because of their physical underpinnings in the brain. This leads to repetitive dysfunctional behaviour that persists because it is so hard to unlearn. 

This is why people affected in this way may frustrate those closest to them by their greatly diminished capacity to learn from experience.

In effect, the childhood trauma has re-programed the brain in a particularly unhelpful manner.

Damage to other areas of the brain caused by prolonged childhood trauma also frequently lead to a sense if being ‘unreal‘, ‘cut off from reality’, ‘living life behind a thick pane of glass’, and ’emotionally dead inside’, unable to feel anything remotely positive (also known as anhedonia), including loss of feeling towards previously close ones.

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It is the brain’s neuroplasticity that allows this damage to occur. However, the brain’s neuroplasticity may also be exploited to reverse the adverse effects our childhood trauma has had on our brains.

 

Exploiting Neuroplasticity To Repair The Damage To Our Brains Caused By Our Childhood Trauma:

Three main ways we can reverse this damage done to our brains may include the following:

– learning about how our childhoods have affected, on a very deep level, what we feel, how we think and behave, and how we act eg. through bibliotherapy – thus helping us to process our trauma

– medication, ECT (in extreme cases) , deep brain stimulation. (Obviously, none of these should be undertaken accept on advice of an appropriately qualified professional, usually a psychiatrist).

– undertaking experiences that make us feel safe, cared for, relaxed and loved and that make us feel these things on as deep a level as possible, as often as possible (just as the brain can be harmed by negative experience, so, too, may it be healed through positive experience eg. meditation and mindfulness).

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Copyright 2016 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

Neuroplasticity: Functional and Structural

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I have already written several articles about how severe childhood trauma can actually cause physical damage to the developing brain. However, as I have also written about, with the right kind of therapy the brain can recover due to a phenomenon of neuroplasticity (click here to read one of my articles about NEUROPLASTICITY).

The brain comprises over 100 billion (100,000,000,000,000) nerve cells called neurons and, we now know, can create new neurons and produce new connection between existing neurons. It is these processes which allow the brain to change and repair itself. We now know, too, that this process of repair can occur at any age, not just in childhood (although it remains true that the human brain is most changeable/’plastic’ during early life).

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This neuroplasticity (ability to change) of the brain can be divided into two types:

a) FUNCTIONAL NEUROPLASTICITY

b) STRUCTUiRAL NEUROPLASTICITY

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

FUNCTIONAL NEUROPLASTICITY – if a part of the brain responsible for a particular function is damaged, in some cases it is possible for a different part of the brain to take over control of that function

STRUCTURAL NEUROPLASTICITY – specific brain structures are able to physically change and develop as a consequence of experience and learning (particularly if these involve systematic training and repetition). The brain’s grey matter in a particular structure can literally be induced to thicken – due to it receiving a greater blood supply/supply of nutrients the more it is used – and to strengthen the connections between its resident neurons.

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Studies involving the brain structure called the amydala:

A brain structure known as the amygdala is responsible for our response to fear and, if we have to experienced a childhood in which we often felt under threat, this structure can become overactive so that, as adults, we constantly feel stuck on ‘red-alert mode’ and under constant threat (even if we have no idea why). It feels that our ‘fight or flight’ response, normally only temporarily activated in emergencies, is permanently switched on.

This results in us being oversensitive to perceived threat and overreacting to it. This can lead to problematic behaviours and to damage to our endocrine and immune systems (due to the physiological effect that constantly feeling in danger has on us).

 

Need to retrain the amygdala:

If we have an overactive amygdala as described above due to our traumatic childhood then one thing we can do to repair it is to retrain it so that it forms, through the process of NEUROPLASTICITY,  new and beneficial neural pathways between it and another part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex so that the cconnection between these two brain structures is strengthened.

Why is it necessary to create this strengthened connection between the two brain structures? This is because the medial prefrontal cortex is able to regulate the amydala’s fear response and, therefore, reduce its activity, effectively overriding it.

Therapies which can help to retrain the amydala in this way include neurolinguistic processing (NLP), autosuggestion, hypnotherapy (especially repeated sessions), meditation, visualisation exercises and breathing exercises.

We need to repeatedly embed new and beneficial suggestions in our minds to ‘overwrite’ the harmful messages we may have absorbed in childhood. The more we can embed these new, positive suggestions in our minds the greater becomes the likelihood that the actual physical structure of our brains will undergo positive changes.

Resources:

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2015 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

Anxiety, CBT and Neuroplasticity

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It is a relatively new discovery within psychology that the brain physically changes throughout our lives (not just during childhood and adolescence as many previously supposed).

Just as the brain’s physical development can be harmed (eg certain types of severe childhood trauma can interfere with the development of the amygdala, which, in turn, is related to the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD)click here to read my article on this), so, too, can its structure and functionality be repaired and enhanced by therapeutic interventions; the harnessing of the power of such  beneficial interventions has come to be known as  SELF-DIRECTED NEURO-PLASTICITY.

Self-directed neuro-plasticity essentially involves us teaching ourselves to think and act in new ways that can positively shape and control the functioning of our physical brain, altering its structure to our advantage and ‘re-wiring’ it in helpful ways (click here to read my article about how the brain can ‘re-wire’ itself).

 

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HOW THIS RELATES TO THE TREATMENT OF ANXIETY

A recent research study, conducted by the psychologist Schwartz, involved patients suffering from an anxiety disorder being treated with a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique (called ‘mindfulness‘). CBT, to explain it in very basic terms, is a form of therapy based on the premise that by changing how we think, we can change how we act and feel, and, furthermore, that many psychological disorders have at their heart a faulty thinking style that causes distress. CBT seeks to correct this faulty thinking style.

But back to Schwartz’s study. He found that those treated with CBT improved to about the same degree as would be expected had they been treated with medication. This having been established, Schwartz then arranged for these improved patients to be given a brain scan (specifically, for those interested, a PET scan, or positron emission tomography scan).

This revealed that certain NEURAL PATHWAYS in the brains of the patients had undergone significant change. Specifically, there was seen to be, after the CBT therapy had been completed, significantly greater activity in the patients’ ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX.

FUTURE IMPLICATIONS

As research into neuroplasticity continues and more experiments, such as the one outlined above, are conducted, it is likely that more and more psychological disorders will be amenable to interventions that exploit the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, providing us all, even those with conditions  thought to be deeply entrenched, a good deal of hope that we can get very significantly better.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Copyright 2014 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

Mending The Mind : Self-Directed Neuroplasticity

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We can use our own mind (which, for the sake of not over-complicating matters, I’ll define here as our conscious thought processes, feelings and experiences) to physically alter our brains, which, in turn, alters how our mind works.

This can lead to a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop (as well as anything inbetween). In this article I want to concentrate upon how we can develop a positive feedback loop.

HOW THE PHYSICAL BRAIN CAN BE CHANGED :

The physical brain is in a constant state of flux. Changes to it can be both TEMPORARY and LONG-LASTING. Let’s look at each of these types of physical changes in turn:

TEMPORARY :

a) changes in how the brain’s neurons (cells) are firing at any given time

b) the concentration of different types of neurochemicals (eg. a low concentration of the neurochemical serotonin is associated with the mental experience of depression)

c) changes in the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that the brain is receiving (this is why taking deep breaths, or learning deep breathing exercises, helps to make us feel calm and why hyperventilating makes us feel even more panicked than whatever it was that led us to hyperventilate in the first place).

d) changes in glucose levels being delivered to the brain

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LONG-LASTING :

Through therapies such as repeated self-hypnosis, the regular practice of mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), we can make long-lasting, beneficial, physical changes to our brains (like the title of this article, this is known as SELF-DIRECTED NEUROPLASTICITY).

In effect, such techniques ‘feed’ particular brain regions with an increased level of blood/nutrients, which, in turn, has a positive effect upon our state of mind (eg reducing feelings of depression and anxiety).

In other words, non-physical thoughts and feelings induced by the therapies mentioned above have a beneficial, physical effect on the brain which, in turn, improves how we feel – this is the POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOP I referred to earlier in this article.

Ways in which this happens include :

a) NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER. By increasing neural activity in specific brain regions (through our chosen therapeutic technique – see above) the neurons’ connections (synapses) are strengthened, and new connections (synapses) are formed

b) Over time mental practices like mindfulness etc can thicken the part of the brain known as the CORTEX

c) Therapies like mindfulness etc can increase the level of activation in the LEFT PREFRONTAL LOBES

d) Such therapies can also lower the production of CORTISOL (cortisol is a stress hormone – if, when we are under great stress over an extended period of time, too much of it is produced it can damage a part of the brain known as the HIPPOCAMPUS which, amongst other functions, is involved in memory)

e) GAMMA RANGE BRAINWAVES can be strengthened by therapies like mindfulness

f) Such therapies can also thicken a small region of the brain known as the INSULA, which is involved in how we feel about our existence.

NEUROPLASTICITY LEADS TO INCREMENTAL, RATHER THAN SUDDEN, CHANGE IN THE BRAIN :

When we use therapies like repeated self-hypnosis, mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for the purposes of self-directed neuroplasticity the changes in the brain occur incrementally (proceeding gradually in small steps which build upon one another), rather than suddenly and dramatically.

RESOURCES :

– Mindfulness Training MP3. CLICK HERE.

– My book below, entitled ‘How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain – And How These Effects Can Be Reversed’ is now available on Amazon for immediate download. $4.79. CLICK HERE.

 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2014 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

Finding Optimism and Positive Moods : The Neuroscience. Part 1.

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I find it tremendously exciting that neuroscience is discovering ways in which we can all help ourselves to make highly significant, or even profound, positive changes to how we respond to our lives on an emotional level. One of the main reasons we can do this is that it is now known that through training our brains in certain ways we can ALTER IT ON A PHYSICAL LEVEL due to a property it has which neuroscientists have called NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this).

imagescaowaggc - Finding Optimism and Positive Moods : The Neuroscience. Part 1.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BRAIN’S LEFT HEMISPHERE :

Neuroscientific research has revealed to us that the brain’s left hemisphere is associated with generating positive emotions whilst the right hemisphere is associated with generating negative emotions. Below, I list a sample of the evidence for this :

1) Individuals who suffer a stroke located in the left hemisphere become profoundly depressed whereas people who suffer a stroke located in their right hemisphere actually become less anxious and more easy-going

2) Brain imaging techniques reveal that negative feelings are accompanied by greater activation of the right hemisphere whereas positive feelings such as optimism are associated with more activation of the right hemisphere

3) Depressed people generalize their feelings of negativity onto all aspects of their lives ; it is the right hemisphere that is associated with such generalized thinking

s - Finding Optimism and Positive Moods : The Neuroscience. Part 1.

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THE NEED FOR US TO STIMULATE ACTIVITY IN OUR BRAIN’S LEFT HEMISPHERE IN ORDER TO CREATE POSITIVE MOODS :

It follows from the above that in order for us to elevate our mood we need to stimulate our left hemisphere much more. How do we do this?

To answer this question it is useful to refer to research conducted by the psychologist Kelly Lambert : she drew our attention to the fact that there is a network in the brain’s left hemisphere that connects movement, emotion and thinking, which means these three things affect each other. Because of these connections in the brain, it has been found that increasing physical activity has the knock on effects of lifting mood and creating more positive thinking. Lambert named this technique for treating depression  ‘BEHAVIOURAL ACTIVATION.

Following on from this research, it has been emphasized that an especially effective way to benefit from the behavioural activation mechanism is, when we are depressed, TO ACT AS WE WOULD IF WE WERE IN A GOOD MOOD. This might involve, for example, undertaking an activity we used to enjoy such as a sport or hobby.

Also, whilst it might sound a little silly, it has also been found that even the physical act of smiling (even when we are depressed and don’t feel like smiling) helps to activate the left hemisphere due to the way in which our brains are wired up.

IMPLICATIONS OF THE FACT THAT THE LEFT HEMISPHERE CONTROLS LANGUAGE :

Because the left hemisphere controls language, the more we use language in relation to our condition, the more this hemisphere is activated. We therefore need to try to put our feelings into words when we are depressed (for example linguistically labelling our feelings rather than just passively experiencing them, or verbally interpreting and analysing our situation).

Also, writing a daily diary , including writing about feelings and emotions, is a good idea.

In my own case, my main motivation for creating this site was for the therapeutic effect of doing so.

NEUROPLASTICITY REVISITED :

Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity, the more we activate our left hemisphere the more it undergoes beneficial physiological change increasing neural connections that lift our mood. Just as depression leads to vicious cycle affecting our mood, thoughts and behaviour, stimulating our left hemisphere leads to a virtuous, and, ultimately, self-perpetuating, positive cycle.


FOR PART TWO, CLICK HERE.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

Recovery: How the Brain can ‘Rewire’ Itself (Neuroplasticity).

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Severe childhood trauma can adversely affect the way in which the brain develops, leading to, for example, extremes in anxiety or great difficulty in controlling emotions. However, there has been exciting research conducted showing that the brain is able, under certain conditions, to ‘rewire’ itself, correcting its own faulty circuitry, and, thus, alleviating the behavioural and emotional problems caused by the original damage.

The adult brain is much more changeable and modifiable than had previously been believed. There is now a large amount of evidence to show that damaged neural (brain) circuitry resulting from severe childhood trauma can be corrected, reshaping our brain anatomy and consequent behaviour, with the right kind of therapeutic interventions. In other words, it is now clear that brain architecture continues to change throughout adulthood and this can be manipulated in highly beneficial directions.

Many people who suffer extreme childhood trauma go on to develop personality disorders as adults; one hallmark of these disorders is rigid, destructive behavioural patterns. Research is now showing, however, that certain therapeutic interventions, due to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself), can change those behaviours to become more flexible and adaptive (helpful in creating a more successful life).

Another problem those who have suffered extreme childhood trauma  develop later on is extreme and obsessive worry which can be so severe it is pathologically categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For the purposes of explaining how neuroplasticity works, let’s take that (ie OCD) as our example of a problem which needs to be alleviated.

With OCD, obsessive worries can become so extreme that the person experiencing them becomes actively suicidal. Such a tortured state of mind can persist for months or even (as in my own case) years. Indeed, one suicide attempt nearly killed me and I even underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — to no avail, most regretably (see the ‘My Story’ category if you want to read a bit more about this profoundly distressing period of my life). When anxiety is this pathological, medications may dampen the symptoms somewhat, but, this, of course, fails to address the root psychological cause of the problem.

With this kind of anxiety, terrible and terrifying events are unremittingly anticipated – whether these are largely imagined or not is not the point : the problem is that the threats FEEL real. When something truly appalling is even remotely possible, in the mind of the individual experiencing obsessional anxiety, it FEELS INEVITABLE.

In order to address such life-threatening (due to risk of suicide) conditions, the psychologist Jeffrey Schwartz has developed a NEUROPLASTICITY-BASED TREATMENT; it has already yielded excitingly successful results.

To understand his form of treatment, let’s first examine the theory of why those suffering from OCD become mentally fixated on their intense anxieties.

Schwartz, first of all, compared the brains of those who suffered from OCD with the brains of those who did not (by taking scans). After he delivered his form of psychotherapy, he took the scans again which revealed the brains of the patients had normalized.

In ‘normal’ people, when something goes wrong, there is a period of anxiety which gradually wears off. However, with OCD sufferers, the period of anxiety is not only much more intense but also maintains an iron mental grip on the sufferer – the individual becomes ‘stuck’ in this intense anxiety phase. So what is going on in neurological terms?

Schwartz generously enlightened us in the following manner :

1) When something anxiety inducing occurs, a region of the brain, known as the ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX, is alerted. Activity in this region of the brain is far greater in those who suffer OCD – it becomes HYPERACTIVE.

2) A chemical message is then sent from that brain region to another brain region – the CINGULATE GYRUS, triggering the anxiety response. IN PEOPLE WITH OCD, the activity here is, again, far more than normally intense. Crucially, too, in people with OCD, the intense activity in this brain region STAYS ‘LOCKED ON’ (as if the ‘ON SWITCH’ which has activated it CANNOT BE ‘SWITCHED OFF’). Indeed, Schwartz referred to this phenomenon as ‘BRAIN LOCK’. (In ‘normal’ individuals the activity in the stimulated brain regions gently fades away, as the brain designed it to do).

The treatment Schwartz developed is designed to ‘UNLOCK’, and normalize, the manner in which the brain’s circuitry works.

THE FIRST STEP in the therapy is for the OCD sufferer to RELABEL what s/he is experiencing AS A SYMPTOM OF HIS/HER OCD. S/he should remind him/herself that it is ‘just’ the neurological malfunctioning (the ‘brainlock’) which is the true cause of his/her discomfort, NOT the content of the anxiety itself. This relabeling provides some mental distance from the content of the obsessive concern. The more the person can concentrate on the physiological reasons for the feeling of distress, and the more s/he can distance her/himself from its actual content, the more effective the therapy tends to be.

Once this has been acknowledged, THE SECOND STEP is to REFOCUS THE ATTENTION ON SOMETHING POSITIVE and, ideally, pleasure-inducing.

As the person gets better at implementing these steps, new brain circuits start to develop : the obsessive circuits begin to be bypassed. Of course, changes do not materialize instantaneously – the brain takes time to ‘rewire’ itself.

If the person finds implementing the above two steps difficult to do, s/he should remind him/herself that even distancing him/herself from the content of the anxiety and doing something pleasurable instead for just one minute will help develop the beneficial new brain circuitry.

Two rather pithy sayings, often quoted by psychologists, help us to remember the theory behind the therapy :

– ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’

– ‘neurons that fire apart, wire apart’

To end this post with an encouraging statistic, it is worth recording that 80% of Schwartz’s patients got better when this therapy was combined with medication.

RESOURCES:

EBOOKS :

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Above eBooks now available on Amazon for immediate download.CLICK HERE.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery