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Psychologists and psychiatrists have long understood that people have fairly predictable responses to events and situations that cause deep suffering. Whether it is something seemingly avoidable such as spousal abuse or something ultimately unavoidable such as the death of a loved one, people react with observable emotional patterns. In recent years and even decades, increasingly sophisticated scientific study of the brain is identifying the neurological causes of our human reactions.
Take post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example. “If you suffer from post-traumatic stress,” writes Melanie Greenberg, Psy.D. for Psychology Today, “you will likely overuse some parts of your brain and underuse others. The parts of your brain involved in monitoring for signs of danger and anticipating what could go wrong are overused. Because experiencing severe trauma can shut down other systems not involved in emergency responding, it is also likely that parts of your brain that are involved in enjoying the moment, celebrating your own successes, pursuing positive goals, relaxing, feeling gratitude or awe, or bonding securely with other people are underutilized.”
In order to overcome PTSD — that is, process the memory of the trauma in a healthy way — or develop any number of other positive behaviors, it’s necessary to “re-wire” the brain. Creating strong neuron connections and getting neuron networks to reconnect properly is possible because of an attribute of the brain called neuroplasticity. This allows you to change your pattern of thinking and hence behavior by practicing new ways of thinking and finding new ways to make room for your feelings.
The key to regaining mental health after a traumatic event, says Greenberg, is the fact that “avoidance perpetuates trauma-based patterns; facing fears helps you unlearn them.” She goes on to say that “You may try to put your trauma memories and feelings into a mental box so you can avoid looking at them. You try to get on with everyday life as if the trauma never happened and don’t deal with it. You may drink alcohol or abuse other substances to suppress anxiety or escape difficult feelings. You may become sexually compulsive or sexually avoidant. You may overwork, overeat for emotional reasons, become obsessed with thinness or exercise compulsively. Although these strategies can work to suppress feelings for a while, they create new problems and can damage your health and self-esteem.”
So how do you develop new ways of thinking and positive behaviors? There are different ways. If your trauma is very specific — for example, if your spouse has died — then grief support groups have been proven to be extremely valuable. For many other traumas, the help of a professional therapist is invaluable. In almost all cases a specific mindset is important: an attitude of openness rather than avoidance.