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