Numerous authors have investigated the link between a child’s early attachment experiences with their mother and the impact this has on the child’s ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour. John Bowlby suggested that the characteristics of primary caregiver relationships interact with innate psychophysiological predispositions to shape an infant’s responses to stressful events which perpetuates through to adulthood. As these experiences take place early in life, it significantly impacts a child’s capacity to integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive information and therefore their understanding of, and responses to, the world around them. Several attachment styles have been identified namely: secure attachment; insecure attachment and disorganised attachment. Accordingly, secure attachment styles develop when a child’s caregiver is predictably sensitive to their needs which creates a feeling of safety and security, allowing them to explore the world around them as they feel able to return to a place of safety when they feel threatened. Insecure attachment and disorganised attachment styles develop as a result of attachment figures being unavailable or inconsistent in terms of their responses when the child is distressed. When caregivers are absent during frightening situations, or even worse the source of the distress, the child becomes emotionally overwhelmed as they do not know where to turn to find relief. This can lead to the child becoming trapped in an almost permanent state of fear which impacts how they regulate their emotions, thoughts and behaviour. As these experiences occur during early developmental stages they become inextricably intertwined with neural development and therefor impacts how the brain organises, integrates and regulates sensory, cognitive and emotional information. This then creates an internal model which impacts thoughts, feelings, behaviour and coping mechanisms into adulthood. Research has found significant relationships between adverse childhood experiences and a wide range of mental health issues such as depression; suicide attempts; substance abuse; domestic violence as well as physical manifestations such as obesity; cancer; heart disease and stroke to name but a few. The understanding of the mind and the brain cannot be separated from each other, nor should they. The brain is most often described as a physical organ composed of grey and white matter. Although many definitions about the mind exist, most agree that it represents the activity of the brain. Most psychotherapists focus on the mind in order to address thoughts and behaviours related to mental health related issues. However, all human behaviours, thoughts and emotions are driven by the communication between neural networks in the form of synchronised electrical oscillations or waves. Developmental trauma impacts how electrical signals are passed between different brain areas in order to communicate with each other, causing over and under-activation of brain areas involved in processing and responding to information. With Neurofeedback, certain electrical frequencies (brainwaves) are rewarded while others are inhibited in order to develop new oscillations or firing patterns between particular brain structures and therefore facilitate more appropriate responses to environmental/ stressful stimuli. Neurofeedback approaches are based on the brain model of arousal. Accordingly, a significant relationship exists between arousal and regulation. Optimal brain functioning can be described as the brain being able to effectively shift between different states of arousal based on the task at hand, for instance meeting a deadline vs going to sleep. With developmental trauma, individuals find shifting between arousal states difficult as they are almost constantly hyper vigilant and hyper focussed driven by a state of fear which can lead to an over aroused brain, an underaroused brain or a brain with mixed arousal levels. Arousal levels relate to different brain frequencies which are dominant during a particular state. With Neurofeedback, the goal of treatment of trauma is to train the brain to produce frequencies which make the person feel calmer, less reactive and less afraid. Developmental trauma has a pervasive effect on how an individual functions and copes throughout their lives and impacts not only the mind but the brain as well. By using brain-based approaches such as Neurofeedback, the individual can learn how to quieten their brain and to in effect reorganise a dysregulated brain. This not only impacts symptoms associated with trauma caused by being caught in a never ending cycle of fear, but also facilitates the discovery of the capacity to self-regulate, empowering the individual and enhancing the impact of psychotherapeutic support and interventions. Written by: Annelise Adlam
Sebern Fisher presenting in South Africa (4-5 March 2016 in Johannesburg, 12-13 March 2016 in Cape Town)
Sebern Fisher is a psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner who specialises in attachment issues and has published a book, “Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma: Calming the Fear Driven Brain”. Sebern trains and consults in the implementation of neurofeedback and on the integration of psychotherapy and neurofeedback nationally and internationally. Sebern will be presenting a two day workshop on developmental trauma, and the integration of neurofeedback with psychotherapy in Johannesburg and Cape Town in March 2016.
Click here if you want to learn how to calm the fear driven brain.
Fisher, S. F. (2014). Neurofeedback in the treatment of developmental trauma: Calming the fear-driven brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.