Tag Archives: Brain

Childhood Trauma Can Create Brain Wired For Fear

We have seen from other articles I have published on this site that psychological experiences, especially when young, can actually alter the physical structure of the brain, as well as its neural connection (i.e. how the brain cells are interlinked) – this is because of a quality of the brain that psychologists call neuroplasticity (click here to read one of my articles about this phenomenon).

These physical changes in the brain, caused by psychological experience, can profoundly alter how the brain functions and also, therefore, how we think, feel and behave.

If, as a child, we suffered trauma and abuse as we were growing up, particularly in our earliest years, and, because of this, lived in a state of perpetual fear, the brain will have become shaped into constantly being on ‘red-alert’, trapping us into continually feeling fearful and hyper-sensitive in relation to threat, whether this threat be real or imagined. Indeed, if we have been conditioned in this manner by our childhood experiences, we are likely to be prone to imagining threats as well as being likely to severely over-react to mild ones ( e.g. we may be easily angered and more likely than the average person to become violent, rather like, to use a most unoriginal, but, I think, not inappropriate simile, a provoked and cornered animal).

Living in constant fear is psychologically extremely painful and distressing, as I know from my own experiences. Indeed, this pain can become so intolerable that, in the absence of therapy, the individual may be driven to attempt to self-medicate with alcohol or street drugs – this is known as dissociation, and there are many other forms of it, such as compulsive gambling and sex addiction (click here to read my article on this). Whilst not recommended, such behaviour is understandable when the alternative is to live in an agony of agitation, even terror, as if one were, imminently, going to become intimately acquainted with the world’s worst horrors.

Trauma and abuse, resulting in the child feeling unsafe in early life, can, potentially, have such a profound effect because, it this stage of incipient development the brain is highly malleable (i.e. easily shaped by environmental experience). As well as the possible adverse effects already described, when such a traumatised child becomes an adult s/he may also find:

– difficulties with connecting with others on an emotional level / problems forming and maintaining close relationships – an inability to feel pleasure (also known as anhedonia – click here to read my article on this).


Above: Often, the things we fear only ever exist within our own minds. We can waste an inordinate amount of mental energy in this manner, and cause ourselves enormous, needless, mental anguish.


This is because, in effect, the parts of the brain responsible for forming healthy relationships and for feeling pleasure have not been, as it were, sufficiently exercised during childhood; on the other hand, the parts of the brain (especially the amygdala) that give rise to feelings of fear have been over-exercised and are, therefore, overactive.

Children’s brains are much more vulnerable to the effects of stress and trauma than are the brains of adults (assuming the adults in question did not experience significant trauma growing up) because, by the time one’s an adult (to repeat, who has not had a traumatic childhood), the brain has had time to build up some resilience; however, in the case of the child, opportunities to develop such resilience have not, sadly, presented themselves.

RECOVERY

Yoga :

Excitingly, too, recent research has suggested (and this may surprise some) that yoga can actually help sufferers of the kind of difficulties described above more effectively than medication.

Mindfulness Meditation :

There is also strong evidence showing that the practice of ‘mindfulness’ can be very effective.

Neurofeedback :

According to Mobbs, the brain consists of two areas involved in how we experience fear as shown below :

It is becoming increasingly recognized that overactivity in the brain’s fear circuitry may be of fundamental relevance to not only complex-PTSD and PTSD, but to many other psychiatric disorders as well and it clearly follows, therefore, that damping down the over-intensity of neuronal firing in this part of the brain may be key to effective therapy for the treatment of a whole array mental health issues. In relation to this, there is mounting excitement about how NEUROFEEDBACK can benefit many individuals who suffer from acute psychological distress.

  • the reactive-fear circuit
  • the cognitive-fear circuit

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

THE REACTIVE-FEAR CIRCUIT :

This circuit deals with threats that are IMMEDIATE and require an instant reaction (namely, activation of the ‘fight or flight’ response) ; it involves the interconnection between two areas of the brain as shown below :

  • the periaqueductal gray
  • midcingulate cortex

THE COGNITIVE-FEAR CIRCUIT :

This circuit deals with threats that DO NOT require an immediate response, allowing us time to consciously consider the risk they pose to us and how we should respond to them ; this circuit involves connections between the following brain areas :

THE SEE-SAW METAPHOR :

Mobbs asserts that the relationship between these two brain regions can be compared to the two ends of a see-saw ; in other words, as one goes up, the other comes down, which means :

  • The more activated the reactive-fear circuit becomes, the less activated the cognitive-fear circuit becomes.

And the reverse is also true, so :

  • The more activated the cognitive-fear circuit becomes, the less activated the reactive-fear circuit becomes.

Relevance To Those Who Have Suffered Childhood Trauma :

As we have seen from many other articles that I have already published on this site, if we have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma we are at increased risk of developing various disorders as adults (such as comples PTSD and borderline personality disorder) which are underpinned by having oversensitive and overactive fear-response circuitry and, correspondingly, underactive cognitive-response circuitry.

What Is Neurofeedback ?

Neurofeedback is biofeedback for the brain and neuro-counsellors can provide their patients with such feedback simply by using special, computer software.

The neurofeedback the patients receive allow them to become aware of their brain function frequencies and how these relate to different emotional states.

How Does Neurofeedback Help Adults Suffering From The Effects Of Childhood Trauma?

Armed with this information, and by continuing to learn from the neurofeedback their brains provide them with (via the software mentioned above), the patients can then, gradually, be trained to exercise control over their brain wave activity (for example, by soothing it with visualization techniques, breathing exercises or calming thoughts etc.). With enough training, the patients’ dysregulated brains can be helped to heal and to become less fear-driven.

This results in the reactive-fear circuit become less sensitive and active which, in turn, provides the cognitive-fear circuit, as it were, ‘more room to manoeuvre.’ In this way, irrational feelings of fear that were originally being driven by the (unthinking and automatic) reactive-fear circuit can now be more soberly and rationally considered by the (reflective and thinking) cognitive-fear circuit and, therefore, more easily be dismissed as unwarranted, made impotent and deprived of their power to cause us anguish.

ZEN MEDITATION, ALPHA WAVES AND NEUROFEEDBACK :

Above : Individual undergoing a neurofeedback / EEG biofeedback session using a computer program and brain sensors.

According to Buzsaki, Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers University, Zen meditation needs to be undertaken for years until the person practising it is able to slow the frequency of the brain’s alpha waves and to spread the alpha oscillations more forward to the front of the brain ; slowing these brain waves have many beneficial effects including :

  • reducing fear
  • reducing ‘mind chatter’
  • increasing feelings of calm
  • reduce anxiety
  • reduce feelings of panic

However, Buzaki states that (as alluded to above) whilst it takes years of Zen meditation to optimally alter alpha wave brain activity, the same results can be obtained after a mere week’s training with neurofeedback.

N.B. Neurofeedback should only be carried out under the supervision of an appropriately qualified and experienced person.

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

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The Brain, Neuroscience and Meditation

brain meditation

THE PHYSICAL BRAIN :

The brain – the most complex entity in the known universe – controls our thoughts, moods, behavior and memories. It is clearly a physical entity, but neuroscientists are still a long way from being able to explain how something purely physical can give rise to conscious experience.

In simplified terms, the brain can be split into 3 main parts :

– THE CEREBRUM

– THE BRAIN STEM

– THE CEREBELLUM

brain regions

brain regions

The brain contains about 10 BILLION NEURONS (brain cells) and about 50 TRILLION SYNAPSES (connections between neurons).

The brain is also split into 2 halves (LEFT and RIGHT HEMISPHERES) which are connected by the CORPUS CALLOSUM (a collection of nerve fibres).

The two hemispheres can be further sub-divided into 4 lobes :

– THE FRONTAL LOBES (concerned with reasoning, voluntary movement, planning, emotions and intelligence)

– THE PARIETAL LOBES (concerned with spatial awareness, sensory information and body movement)

– THE OCCIPITAL LOBES (concerned with vision and visual memories)

– THE TEMPEROL LOBES (concerned with generating memory and emotions and also with comprehending sounds and images)

the brain's lobes

THE BRAIN’S EFFECT ON CRITICAL BODY FUNCTIONS :

The CEREBRUM is CONNECTED TO THE SPINAL CORD by the BRAIN STEM and, via this route, AUTOMATICALLY REGULATES VITAL BODY FUNCTIONS such as BREATHING, SWALLOWING, BLOOD PRESSURE, HEART BEAT and POSTURE ADJUSTMENTS.

THE CHEMICAL BRAIN :

The brain produces over 50 drugs and chemical reactions within it are continuous : these chemical reactions are linked to the brain’s electrical activity and together they are responsible for our behaviour, mood and health. It follows, then, that as the brain’s chemistry and electrical activity alter, so, too, does our behaviour and mood.

3 chemicals produced by the brain which affect mood

3 chemicals produced by the brain which affect mood

One group of brain chemicals which are of particular interest in connection with our mood and behaviour are called ENDORPHINS. Endorphin is, in fact, morphine (a powerful pain killing drug) that is produced within the body itself – it is able to produce analgesia and a general sense of well-being.

FOUR KEY EFFECTS OF ENDORPHINS :

1) improve immune system

2) relieve pain

3) reduce stress

4) postpone the ageing process

Endorphins are not only produced by the brain, but secreted throughout the whole body (which underlines the intimate connection between the mind and body).

HOW CAN WE MAXIMIZE OUR PRODUCTION OF ENDORPHINS?

The neuroscientist, Candice Pert, a research expert in this field of study, suggests that the following will help to maximize our production of endorphins :

– daily relaxation

– enjoyable exercise

– ‘goaless’ recreation (ie recreation we do for its own sake, rather like children at play)

– displays of affection (both public and private)

– guiltless sex

– laughing/humour/sense of the ridiculous

– deep breathing/meditation

– massage

– music

BRAIN CHEMISTRY AND MENTAL / PHYSICAL HEALTH :

Research has demonstrated that severe and long-lasting stress, as well as depression and anger, cause the body to produce chemicals which block healing (both psychological and physical) and even reduce life expectancy. Whereas, on the other hand, the production of endorphins protects us from stress and illness as well as increasing our life expectancy.

THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN :

The neurophysiologist, Paul MacLean, stated that, in effect, we have ‘three brains’ which are connected to one another but which also process information independently. These are :

1) THE NEOCORTEX – this only exists in humans and the other higher mammals (most recent, and relatively newly evolved)

2) THE LIMBIC SYSTEM – this is the paleo mammalian part of our brain (second part to evolve)

3) BRAIN STEM and CERREBELLUM – this is the reptilian part of our brain (first part to evolve)

I remember, when doing my first degree in psychology at university, we were told that, in effect, this meant that our brains were part lizard, part horse and part higher mammalian/human.

Indeed, our rational thought processes, generated by our recent acquistion of the neocortex, can easily be swamped and over-ruled by the more primitive parts of our brain which control our basic, instinctual drives. The three parts of the brain can be seen as being at conflict with one another, or even at war. This echoes Freud’s view of the Id, Ego and Superego being similarly at war with one another, leading to neurosis or psychosis (although there is no room to go into Freud’s theory here, unfortunately).

THE AMYGDALA :

It is thought that our most basic instinctual survival drives are centred on the part of the brain called the amygdala. Under stress, this part of the brain can completely disrupt thinking. It responds to both conscious and unconscious perceptions, non-verbal signs of fear and anger, to produce hormones that lead to physical responses of the body including sweating, muscular tension and defensive body postures.

location of the amygdala

location of the amygdala

Once aroused, it can completely inhibit rationality and create actions of passion, anger and violence. Whilst this function served our ancestors well (as they frequently needed to protect themselves from life – threatening attack), in the modern world ( where we are now rarely in physical danger), this very same function is now usually maladaptive (or, to put it another way, can create far more problems than it solves).

THE AMYGDALA, ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, PHOBIA AND PTSD.

Modern brain scanning techniques show that when the amygdala becomes active it interferes with parts of the brain responsible for processing information rationally. The amygdala also stores emotionally charged memories and, in conditions in which such memories seem to overwhelm the individual, such as can occur in anxiety, depression, phobia and PTSD, it is now believed the symptoms such conditions generate may be in large part due to a malfunctioning amydala.

The amygdala is highly sensitive, and, because it works as an INTERNAL ALARM SYSTEM, it can be easily triggered.

FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE PHYSICAL BRAIN PROCESSES :

Knowing the above about the amygdala, we can see that feelings and emotions are essentially ‘just’ brain processes.

Unfortunately, due to the way various parts of the brain are interconnected, it is much easier for thoughts to turn the amygdala ON than it is for them to turn the amygdala OFF (this is evolution’s way of expressing the sentiment, ‘better safe than sorry’).

THE ELECTRICAL BRAIN :

The brain is an electrochemical processing system. Neurons (brain cells) communicate with one another by the means of tiny electric impulses. There are 4 frequency bands utilized by the brain. These are ;

– DELTA FREQUENCY :  0.1-4 Hz, characterized by deep sleep

– THETA FREQUENCY : 4-8 Hz, characterized by drowsiness, hypnosis and deep daydreaming

– ALPHA FREQUENCY : 8-13 Hz, characterized by a relaxed but alert mental state

– BETA FREQUENCY : Above 13Hz, characterized by deep concentration and/or anxious thinking

measuring electrical activity in the brain

measuring electrical activity in the brain

Very recent research has also discovered that much higher frequencies can also be detected, above 40Hz, and even as high as 100Hz. This has been termed GAMMA FREQUENCY. This brand new area of study is of much interest as it is believed that these frequency levels have important implications for our higher mental processes including perception, self-awareness and insight.  The GAMMA STATE is also associated with deep meditative states in which people report phenomena such as ‘feeling at one with the universe’ and a ‘loss of the sense of the self as a separate entity.

THE IMPLICATIONS OF NEUROSCIENCE FOR UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF MEDITATION :

Neuroscience has now demonstrated that meditation alters the frequency level at which the brain operates.

Studies have revealed that novice meditators can cause the gamma activity in their brains to increase slightly, whereas expert meditators can produce gamma activity in their brains 30 times stronger. These high levels of gamma activity were found to be concentrated in brain areas associated with positive emotions.

I have already written articles about the brain’s neuroplasticity (ie its ability to physically change itself even in adulthood ; CLICK HERE to read one of my articles on this). It now seems clear that meditation is one of the ways in which the brain’s structure and function can be caused to undergo such change.

Indeed, research suggests that meditation can greatly increase acivity on the left hand side of the brain near the front of the cortex (eg regions in which activity is correlated with positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm and happiness) whilst greatly reducing activity on the right hand side of the brain (eg regions associated with negative emotions such as anxiety and sadness).

Through meditation, then, it is now clear we can train our brains to make ourselves experts in habitually generating  positive emotions and feelings of well being in much the same way that training in a sport like tennis can make us a talented tennis player.

 

brain meditation

Above eBook now available for immediate download from Amazon. CLICK  HERE

 

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

Childhood Trauma Recovery