Just how Therapy Heals by Changing the mind: Mindfulness, Attachment, and Interpersonal Neurobiology

This post explains how mental health and recovery can be understood from an connection and neurological perspective. Psychotherapy has the potential to change the brain through improving neurological integration-allowing all parts of our own brain to function as a whole. This type of functioning increases one’s capacity to regulate feeling, maintain a sense of self, connect plus empathize with others, respond flexibly, manage fear, have moral consciousness, and find meaning. The neurological underpinnings of this will be addressed, as well as exactly how therapy, the practice of mindfulness, and having loving relationships can all work to impact our neurology, our ability to form healthy attachments, and our overall psychological health.

Attachment Theory: In order to understand the process of healing (and that of psychotherapy), it is important to know a bit about attachment theory. This theory was developed by John Bowlby in the 60’s, yet has more recently gained prominence, generally due to exciting developments within the field that shed light on how attachment (i. e.
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early childhood) experiences influence brain development. Attachment theory explores the critical importance of an infant’s early experiences with caregivers in terms of forming later patterns of relating that include sense of self (e. g., “I received lots of love, so I must be lovable”), expectations of others (e. g., “If I show need, I will be disappointed/punished”), and techniques for handling relationships (e. g., “I can’t expect consistent care through others, so I will learn to take care of myself”).

Children have little other choice than to base their understanding of truth, and their strategy for dealing with that will reality, on what they experience at home. Perhaps the most important aspect of this studying is what they come to expect from other humans. That is due to the fact that social romantic relationships are so critically important to living. Because humans have a much better chance of making it through (and reproducing) in a group, we are literally wired to need relationships-for our sense of safety, for our psychological and physical health, as well as for our ability to find meaning. This particular wiring explains why so much of our own sense of well-being is dependent on our relationships and why coming from a household that instills negative expectations more (and the subsequent maladaptive strategies) can be so debilitating.

Because relationships are key to survival, a great deal of the brain is dedicated to monitoring and participating in social behavior (determining safety or danger, expressing warmth or threat, etc . ). According to Allan Schore, a nationally acclaimed researcher, the best hemisphere is more heavily involved in interpersonal processes. It is also the side of the brain that develops more actively within the first two years. During this time the brain is incredibly plastic, with neuronal pathways being laid down and strengthened (or, without use, atrophying). This is a concept some may find surprising. It would be easy to assume that the brain is pretty much fully-structured at birth (like the fingers and feet). But in fact, encounter works alongside genetics to determine the way the brain is wired. Because so much of the right brain is molded during the first two years, this period is particularly critical when it comes to learning how to trust and relate to other people. Reading social cues, having empathy, even being able to like others plus ourselves, is based on how the brain is wired. Although this wiring is largely determined by how one was related to since a child, corrective experiences in adulthood (such as therapy) can fortunately improve brain wiring as well, which I will say more about later.

Attachment as well as the Brain: The study of how attachment experiences impact the brain has been largely initiated by a psychiatrist named Daniel Amtszeichen, whose work many therapists, individuals, and educators have grown interested in during the last 5-10 years. Siegel developed an area in the area of attachment research called Interpersonal Neurobiology, which addresses how the brain is wired through past experiences and how new experiences can help rewire the brain. In the last few years, interest in this industry has rocketed, I believe because Siegel’s work confirms what psychologists have got always known-that early relationships are important-while helping us understand why they are important from a biological point of view. Although specific knowledge of the brain may not be important for therapy or counseling, I have found this extremely useful to orient clients to some of the general principles that Amtszeichen (and Allan Schore, Steve Porges, among others) have discovered. There is something helpful about conceptualizing our behavioral/emotional problems as glitches in our nervous system. This can decrease shame (since it illustrates that our vulnerabilities not necessarily “on purpose”) and be empowering (since understanding the science behind what we are experiencing can help us make shifts).

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