When I work with my parent clients, I find it useful to explain the idea that our anatomical and physiological brains are literally built on and changed by lived experience. I go over the tools available that one can adopt to achieve regulation in the face of stressful life experiences, and I review the concepts of: self-regulation, disregulation, and the effects of physiological flooding. Becoming familiar with these tools and concepts are important because the mind influences brain circuitry — from cradle to grave — but it is most true for the developing infant brain.
What experiences do infants clearly seek out in their first years? They are evolutionarily programmed to seek out human connection with their primary caregivers. This concept really brings home the value of receiving good parenting information and guided parent-child experiences, which I find the Mindful Parenting Groups at WBC provide quite well. It is also comforting for those adults hoping to change their brain that brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to experiences) is lifelong, although more difficult to achieve in our later years. Like well worn ski trails, the longer our neural pathways are used, the deeper the grooves. I say, go ahead and forge new trails, but take a guide with you!
Basically, we have a primitive brain area (the reptilian, old brain) that helps us just stay alive by “playing dead, freezing, fleeing or fighting” when we find ourselves in dangerous situations. Then we have the cerebral cortex, (our newer brain area, evolutionarily speaking), which helps us to discern how best to respond to various situations (higher order thinking) by means of appraisal. In addition, we have right and left hemispheres of our brain. The right-brain is the seat of emotional memory, sleep, appetite, sexuality, moods and bonding, and the left-brain is where more logical, linear processes occur and where information from the right brain is processes as language.
Early childhood attachments shape right-brain functionality. However, we can re-train our brain to consciously enlist our higher order thinking through reflective function, or mentalization, to help us out when we are in more reactive states. This concept is very encouraging news for new parents who have some unresolved or traumatic memories: remember the right-brain houses our emotional memory from childhood that may have had a negative impact on our ability to self-regulate.
I have found another helpful concept to consider: when we are in distress, we have trouble eating, sleeping, feeling sexually aroused, and we feel tired, isolated, hopeless and helpless. These states are all controlled by the limbic system. They symptomatically described what we call clinical depression or in layman’s terms, parental burnout. This explanation, however, doesn’t get to the root cause of the distress and it doesn’t help to alleviate it either but since the distress originally occurred as a result of feeling uncontained when in a state of severe distress, the curative action is to feel the distress fully (by processing it as a coherent story complete with affect, narrative, and perhaps even an olfactory sense) — but this time, as a corrective emotional experience, it is experienced within the containing mind of consciousness and mindfulness. Yes, we can actually rewire our brains by creating new neural pathways in our brain circuitry but this time with empathy and self-compassion as a companion! As the saying goes, “neurons that fire together wire together”. Happy re-wiring!
WE ARE STARTING A NEW OFFERING FOR PARENTS THAT I HOPE WILL BE VERY HELPFUL. LOVING DISCIPLINE ONE-DAY WORKSHOPS. STAY TUNED!
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Deborah Groening is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Psy.D. Candidate and Certified Infant-Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.