The interplay between brain, body, social interaction and environment, is at the heart of a psychological approach called Neuropsychotherapy.
Neuropsychotherapy is heavily based on research into the human brain.
We now know that during the early years of life, the brain depends upon both genetics and the environment to establish neural networks (Schore, 2002).
As an infant experiences its environment, sensory signals and the need to respond to that environment are generated to maximise survival.
Once survival needs are met, the neural pathways are enhanced to generate patterns of thriving (Rossouw, 2014). With a supportive, emotionally gratifying and responsive environment, an “approach” pattern is established.
However, if traumatic experiences are introduced at an early age, the neural networks are wired for “avoidance” patterns. The earlier in childhood the trauma occurs, the more severe the avoidance pattern (Rossouw, 2014).
When safety is compromised, the amygdala in the brain activates the fear-based system, where the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA axis) sends a message to increase production of corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), adrenocorticotrophin hormone (ACTH), norepinephrine (NE), adrenalin and cortisol. Cortical blood flow and frontal systems in the brain are down-regulated, and the brain is wired for survival, with patterns of avoidance, forming (Rossouw, 2014).
What is Attachment?
Studies have shown the interaction between children and parents, or “attachment”, determines the child’s brain’s structure moulding for approach or avoidance patterns.
Insecure attachment patterns have been found to produce lack of attachment and fear of loneliness; and associated with early childhood abuse, and mental disorders in later life (Grawe, 2007). These insecure patterns form early in life during rapid brain development, ensuring strong neural connections for patterns of survival.
Reducing Pain, Increasing Pleasure
A basic human characteristic is the drive to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, through states such as physical, psychological, emotional, or social.
Grawe (2007) states that an individual is in a maximal state when the perception of an experience is aligned with our intentions. When the aligned state is reached between good and bad, the mental system is more efficient with less incongruence (Rossouw, 2014).
A good or bad evaluation of a situation will trigger an approach or avoidance pattern, depending upon the individual’s prior experience and momentary state (Rossouw, 2014). Malchiodi (1990) found that creative interventions had a soothing and safe influence on traumatised individuals by activating the body’s relaxation response; while Siegel (1999) found that they are an important way to change avoidance patterns, by changing attachment.
The Need for Control
The need for control begins from the earliest days of life, when the infant may experience levels of incongruence. This is where a misalignment occurs between what the child needs, and what it perceives it has (Rossouw, 2014). When there is violation of the need for attachment, there is also a violation of the need for control.
The need for control includes manipulating or regulating the environment or relationships to achieve goals, by having many options to chose from (Rossouw, 2014). The individual’s motivational schemas will determine which options are chosen, and how these are translated into behaviour.
By ensuring a safe environment – facilitating therapeutic rapport, being sympathetic, and down-regulating distress – will increase cortical blood flow to the frontal neural systems so cognitive functioning can increase to advance therapy (Rossouw, 2014).
Neuropsychotherapy and the Sense of Self
Self is a result of the wiring of the neural networks instigated by the basic needs (Grawe, 2007). For example, the development of pain and pleasure is linked into the development of self (Rossouw, 2014).
The nurturing of self-esteem is important for mental health and wellbeing, and enhances “approach” motivational schemas. Motivational schemas are neural networks which are built to satisfy and protect basic needs. These schemas come in the form of either “approach” schemas or “avoidance” schemas (Rossouw, 2014). When basic needs are compromised, the sense of self is regulated by protection, resulting in patterns of avoidance.
Research shows that the main outcomes of trauma are dramatic changes to the individual’s views of the world, and their sense of identity (Gorst-Unsworth, Van-Velsen & Turner, 1993).
Creating a safe environment during therapy with a psychologist is extremely important, especially with children. Psychologists can provide support for families and guide children who may have experienced trauma and are therefore in avoidance patterns, to move toward more thriving behaviours.
Author: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist has a Masters in Health Psychology, and is able to treat clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She is experienced in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as children and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try online booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.