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

This article explains how mental health and healing can be understood from an attachment and neurological perspective. Psychotherapy has got the potential to change the brain through raising neurological integration-allowing all parts of the brain to function as a whole. This type of functioning increases one’s capacity to regulate feeling, maintain a sense of self, connect and empathize with others, respond flexibly, manage fear, have moral understanding, 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 may all work to impact the neurology, our ability to form healthful 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 connection theory. This theory was developed by John Bowlby in the 60’s, yet has more recently gained prominence, mainly due to exciting developments within the industry that shed light on how attachment (i. e. early childhood) experiences impact brain development. Attachment theory explores the critical importance of an baby’s early experiences with caregivers in terms of forming later patterns of relating that include sense of self (e. g., “I received lots of adore, so I must be lovable”), expectations more (e. g., “If I express 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 fact, and their strategy for dealing with that reality, on what they experience at home. Perhaps the most important aspect of this learning is what they come to expect from other humans. That is due to the fact that social relationships are so critically important to living. Since humans have a much better chance of surviving (and reproducing) in a group, we have been literally wired to need relationships-for our sense of safety, for the psychological and physical health, as well as for our ability to find meaning. This wiring explains why so much of our own sense of well-being is dependent on our relationships and why coming from a loved ones that instills negative expectations of others (and the subsequent maladaptive strategies) could be so debilitating.

Because relationships are key to survival, a great deal of the mind is dedicated to monitoring and engaging in social behavior (determining safety or even danger, expressing warmth or danger, etc . ). According to Allan Schore, a nationally acclaimed researcher, the best hemisphere is more heavily involved in social processes. It is also the side of the mind that develops more actively within the first two years. During this time the brain is incredibly plastic, with neuronal pathways getting laid down and strengthened (or, without use, atrophying). This is a concept some may find surprising. It would be simple to assume that the brain is pretty much fully-structured at birth (like the hands and feet). But in fact, experience works alongside genetics to determine how the brain is wired. Because so much from the right brain is molded during the initial two years, this period is particularly critical in terms of 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 dependant on how one was related to as a child, corrective experiences in adulthood (such as therapy) can fortunately alter brain wiring as well, which I can say more about later.

Attachment as well as the Brain: The study of how attachment encounters impact the brain has been largely pioneered by a psychiatrist named Daniel Amtszeichen, whose work many therapists, psychologists, and educators have grown interested in over the last 5-10 years. Siegel developed an area in the area of attachment research called Interpersonal Neurobiology, which addresses how the mental faculties are wired through past experiences and how new experiences can help rewire the mind. In the last few years, interest in this field has rocketed, I believe because Siegel’s work confirms what psychologists have always known-that early relationships are important-while helping us understand why they may be important from a biological point of view. Although specific knowledge of the brain may not be important for therapy or counseling, I have found it extremely useful to orient clients for some of the general principles that Siegel (and Allan Schore, Steve Porges, among others) have discovered.
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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 normally are not “on purpose”) and be empowering (since understanding the science behind what we are experiencing can help us make shifts).

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