Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Ok so I have a confession - I have become a geek. I have become really interested in how our brain is impacted by our experiences. After all, many of us believe that we are shaped by our experiences. But did you know that your brain actually changes it's structure according to it's experiences? You don't just get the brain that you are born with. Have you heard of the term 'neuroplastic'? Well this means very simply, that your brain is like plastic - it can change and adapt according to what is happening.
So what does this mean? Well one of the important functions of your brain is to keep you safe. And your brain starts learning what is safe and what isn't safe from a very early age. There are three parts of your brain that are important here:
Prefrontal cortex - the 'thinking' part of the brain. The part of the brain that puts a narrative to experiences, essentially the storyteller.
Hippocampus - this is the brain's librarian. The brain's librarian organises experiences, puts them in the right part of the brain's filing cabinet.
Amygdala - this tiny nugget tucked away in the middle of the brain is your protector. Your meerkat who is constantly on the lookout for danger and will prepare your body to respond once the danger is present.
I want to add that neuroscience is a lot more complex than this - there are lots of other parts of the brain that are as equally as important. But I am not a neuroscientist - I am fascinated by this topic but it can be so complex that we turn off and end up not learning anything. I have found that if things are explained easily, I will digest and retain the information far better. There are so many resources out there if you want to read more about it. However, this is a simplified version!
So, back to the brain. Our amygdala is amazing. It works so hard to keep us safe. So what happens when danger is present? It is our amygdala that prepares us to go into battle. Just imagine you are confronted with a large bear that hasn't eaten and wants you for dinner. Do you stop and ponder the ins and outs, wonder about the bear, wonder about yourself? No! You either leg it, fast, or play dead! Your rational part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) isn't needed right now. Your hippocampus isn't needed right now. But your amygdala is working it's bloody socks off! It sends a message through your vagus nerve.
Your vagus nerve (or Las Vegas nerve I like to call it) runs from the base of your brain, down your body with lots of tentacles reaching into your organs. So if your amygdala is telling you to run for your life, it will tell the vagus nerve to pump your heart faster, empty your bowels (I know, I know) and prepare your muscles to get you away pronto. Or your amygdala may tell you to play dead. In that case your heart rate will slow down and you will have little energy.
So, what does all this have to do with counselling? Absolutely loads! Your amygalada starts working from a very young age. So if you have negative experiences at this age, your brain is going to store those away. But they won't be stored as 'normal' memories because your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus has shut down. So these become 'feeling' memories. You won't be able to recall them in the same way that you can remember getting your first pet or your favourite holiday. More than likely, you won't even be aware of these memories.
Why are they important then? If these negative experiences are buried away and we can't remember them, how will they impact us? Well here is the thing. Don't forget that your amygdala is working overtime. And it needs to keep you safe. So your amygdala is remembering every little aspect of your negative experience. This is because it needs to be able to recognise danger to keep you safe. Only now, it is doing it's job a little too well. That meerkat is constantly on the lookout, scanning the horizon for the slightest hint of danger. Only the problem is now that the amygdala is now really strong and really sensitive. It is doing it's job a little too well. It is like a smoke alarm going off, telling us that the house is burning down when in reality, we have just burnt the toast.
And this is where we have a problem. The amygdala is brilliant at telling us about what has
happened to us in the past. But it isn't as good at telling us about the present time. So it senses that there is danger, when in fact there is no danger. Well, that is good, isn't it? The danger isn't there so there is no problem. Wrong. The amygdala is still preparing our body to react to the danger. Heart rate increases, sweaty palms, tight muscles. Ring a bell? Yes, anxiety! Or if we want to play dead, slower heart rate, no energy. Sound familiar? Depression! Do you ever have a bout of anxiety and wonder why? Or feel that your emotional responses aren't consistent with your current experience?
These are called 'triggers'. So as that negative experience from the past hasn't been processed properly (the rational part of the brain and the organising part of the brain weren't fired up), we can only remember them through 'feeling' memories. So often, when we feel overwhelmed by our emotions that don't feel consistent to the present time, it can be that our brain is trying to warn us about a previous danger that is no longer there.
This is pretty shitty isn't it. It feels unfair. But remember that bit about our brains adapting - this is what has happened. Our brain now has certain habits that is has been practicing for years and years. Without having that prefrontal cortex switched on, it is going to be really hard for our brains to change a habit of a lifetime. That is why we keep repeating our behaviour time after time and have those feeling memories happen time after time.
So does that mean this is who we are? Who we are stuck with forever? No, there is hope. Our brains are still able to adapt. We can still alter the strength of different parts of the brain. It can be really helpful to switch on that prefrontal cortex. The more we think about our current experiences, the more we fire up the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Then our amygdala can start to take a break. It stops being as sensitive and stops preparing our bodies for danger when there isn't danger present.
It can be helpful to start to recognise our current experiences as triggers. Once we recognise our triggers we can start to put some thought around it. What was happening right before the trigger. How did we react? Where did we feel it in our body? What is it telling us? This can be a really helpful step in adjusting the brain and recognising that the danger was in the past. Sometimes a 'trigger diary' can be helpful.
I feel like I have overloaded on this blog - sorry! It is really important to note that this is a simplistic view. There is so much more that I could be writing for the next 20 years. Sometimes recalling early memories can re-traumatise us. This blog is not the answer to processing trauma - it is really important to seek help, especially if you are feeling particularly overwhelmed. However, I believe that understanding this can be liberating. There is still so much stigma around mental health issues. This demonstrates that mental health issues such as anxiety, are not about being 'weak' or 'damaged'. It is simply about how the brain adapts to keep us safe. If anything, our brains are too good!
I hope that this has been interesting and helpful. And if this blog resonates with you and you are struggling, please reach out and get the right support for you. This blog is not the answer in itself. If you are struggling to know where to find the right support, drop me a message and I will help signpost you to support.