The power of connectedness

Quote from The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook by Bruce D. Perry)

“Human beings fear what they don’t understand. The unknown scares us. When we meet people who look or act in unfamiliar or strange ways, our initial response is to keep them at arm’s length. At times we make ourselves feel superior, smarter or more competent by dehumanizing or degrading those who are different. The roots of so many of our species’ ugliest behaviors—racism, ageism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, to name just a few—are in this basic brain-mediated response to perceived threat. We tend to fear what we do not understand, and fear can so easily twist into hate or even violence because it can suppress the rational parts of our brain.”

In today’s post I’m sharing a link to a podcast I listened at:  hosted by Dr Rick Hanson and his son, Forrest, and Dr Bruce Perry, who is a leading expert on childhood trauma. His clinical research and practice focus on examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents, and adults, and on how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. He is an author and has also received awards for the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) , which has been integrated into clinical and child protection settings.

The key topics explored in this podcast are the reasons why childhood trauma is so uniquely impactful, the systems of the brain that play a role in the construction of a traumatized system, the factors that can ameliorate the impact of traumatic events and the power of connectedness. In his book The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories…….. Dr Perry writes “The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”

Summarily, Dr Bruce says that “The development of the brain is very, very front-loaded. Even in the first nine months in utero there’s explosive growth. After we’re born, we’ve got a pretty big, intact brain. But it’s still very undeveloped.”  During the  first years of our life brain volume and cognitive function increase at an explosive rate, and so, there’s no doubt that childhood maltreatment leads to changes in brain structure and function. He highlights the massive significance of the first two months of life on one’s future experience. Dr Bruce talks about three key neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which are fundamental to brain function, and essentially, manage everything from our breathing to our heartbeat, learning and concentration levels, to sleep, appetite and pleasure. They are also involved in the body’s fight-flight responses; therefore, when these systems become dysregulated or over potentiated by a developmental insult, they can impact all the areas they influence.

Another important thing that was highlighted in the talk is that even “low-grade” stress, like inconsistent, unpredictable parenting, being a minority student, housing or food insecurity, bullying, and so on, when activated in chaotic ways over a long period of time, will eventually lead to the same point of functioning as if you had a capital T trauma. Neuroplasticity, the mechanism by which the brain changes over time by repeated experience is supercharged in childhood. Consequently, when there is enough stress and trauma our fight-flight response is activated constantly. Over time, enough stress can change the regulatory set point of the brain network, and when acute adaptive states and defenses persist over time, they can become maladaptive traits.

One of the key messages of the discussion is thatThe best predictor of how you’re doing in the present isn’t our history of adversity, it’s our history of connectedness” and how positive relationships can lead to good outcomes and ameliorate developmental vulnerabilities. This point is supported by research that has found that a strong relationship with at least one person was a major predictor on whether at-risk children became effective adults.

Dr Bruce’s Neurosequential Model of Theraputics is also described. This model helps professionals understand the level of developmental functioning a person is currently at, and then targets this level of development with a series of therapeutic activities and interventions that are developmentally reasonable for the particular individual. They mentioned that because the brain processes information in a sequential way the reactive, regulatory and more primitive part of the brain processes information before the information reaches the neo-cortical areas of the brain.

Finally, they discussed the top down mechanism of CBT work and how when children or adults are too distressed and highly aroused their cortical abilities are compromised, and thus, other modalities like art therapy, somatosensory approaches could help regulate one’s physiology first, before CBT interventions are used. Finally, Dr Hanson talked about  the value of many small therapeutic moments throughout the day, and that similarly, to how many moments of small t traumas build up over time, likewise, many moments of repair can also build resilience, soothe and make a difference in one’s well being.

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