How Useful Is Right Brain Therapy For Trauma Survivors?
Why is it that right brain therapy may be more appropriate for trauma survivors as opposed to therapies that concentrate largely upon the left brain?
Right Brain And How We Relate To Others :
One of the main symptoms of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (from which we may suffer if we experienced significant and protracted childhood trauma) is having problems relating to others.
The brain is made up of two halves, called hemispheres: the left hemisphere (or, left brain) and the right hemisphere (or, right brain).
It is the right brain that plays a vital role in how we relate to others because it is intimately involved with many functions that affect how we get along, or, don’t get along, with other people. These functions include :
– our ability to empathize with other people
– our ability to trust others
– our ability to identify with others
– our ability to read the emotions of other people from their facial expressions
– our ability to form healthy attachments with others
– non-conscious communication
Because these functions can be impaired if we have complex PTSD, and because they are controlled largely by the right brain, it follows logically that therapy to restore these functions to their optimum levels should, too, concentrate on the right brain.
Why Do These Functions Reside In The Right Brain?
This is because, in the first two years of life, according to psychodynamic theory, our interactions with our primary caregiver very significantly lay the foundations of our emotional life, including our expectations regarding relationships with others; these expectations are encoded, on an unconscious level, in the right brain.
Right Brain Therapy And Self-Esteem :
Those with complex PTSD also frequently have significant problems in relation to their sense of self-esteem and therapy for this, too, is also likely to be especially effective when it concentrates upon the right brain. Again, according to psychodynamic theory, this is because the foundations of our self-esteem are (and it is worth repeating) acquired in our first two years of life and are encoded, on an unconscious level, in the right brain.
It follows, therefore, that if our interactions with our primary caregiver in the first two years of our lives are dysfunctional in a way that leads us to believe others do not regard us as of value and worth, we are at high risk of developing into adults who have an ingrained, deeply embedded, unconscious set of negative expectations with regard our relationships with others and our self-esteem.
In other words, such poor expectations regarding our relationships with others and low self-esteem have their foundations in a set of unconscious beliefs, stored in the right brain, that were laid down during the first two years of our lives.
Right Brain And Our Sense Of Safety :
Another feature of complex PTSD is that of a constant feeling of being unsafe and under threat. Research conducted by Schorre (2003) suggests that the sense of how safe, or unsafe, we feel is largely dictated by the right brain.
How Does Right Brain Therapy Work?
Right brain therapy can work by modifying behaviour patterns encoded on an unconscious level in the right brain.
Right Brain And Implicit Memory :
Memories stored in the right brain before the age of about two years are known as IMPLICIT memories. This means we are unable to articulate them in words as they are not stored at a linguistic, nor at a conscious, level. Therefore, such memories can only make themselves known to us in ways that are non-verbal (e.g. via our feelings, body sensations and mental imagery).
However, when these memories are triggered and give rise to these feelings, body sensations and mental images we are unaware of their origin for the very reason that they derive from these unconscious/implicit memories in the right brain.
Only right brain therapy then, that can modify these implicit memories on an unconscious level, may be truly effective as left-brain therapy, relying on language, is unable to effectively connect with such non – linguistically stored memories.
Benefits Of Right Brain Therapy For The Relationship With The Therapist:
One of the key predictors as to whether to not therapy will be effective for people suffering from psychological difficulties is the quality of the relationship s/he cultivates with the therapist as engaging the right brain increases the likelihood the person receiving therapy will feel attuned to, and safe (establishing a sense of safety is an indispensable prerequisite to effective therapy for complex PTSD) with, his/her therapist.
attunement, empathy, resonance, sense of safety, and unconscious communication and processing.
Examples Of Right Brain Therapy / Therapeutic Techniques :
These include :
– Art therapy
– Play therapy
– Self-hypnosis / Hypnotherapy
– Relaxation techniques
– Mental imagery / Visualization
– Metaphors (such as those often used in hypnotherapy)
– Expressing feelings
Schore, Allan (2003). Affect Regulation and Repair of the Self. “The Right Brain, the Right Mind, and Psychoanalysis.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)