Trauma, the Brain and what God says about it... - Carol Greenberg, MA, LPC
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
“Me” the person I am is ultimately shaped by whom I love and the pain I attempt to avoid. As I grow and as my identity is shaped, I constantly, but unconsciously face a conflict within as to which of these emotions will end up controlling me, love or fear. One of my greatest goals in life is to avoid as much pain as possible and yet I am hard-wired to love; thus, the dilemma to love, or to protect, becomes an unconscious decision and determines much about my emotional development, or the lack thereof.
John tells us “perfect love casts out fear,” (1 John 4:18), and we are created in His image. We can never be complete and whole and “know who we are until we find our own truest selves in God.” (C.S. Lewis). God has certain non-transferable attributes, but He does share transferable attributes with us. In His likeness, we all have a longing for beauty, greatness, fascination, and intimacy. He created us in love, for love, and to be loved. In other words, we are hard-wired with a longing for connection, to be seen, noticed, cherished and deeply known. This creates and “fires off” the joy center located in our right pre-frontal cortex (PFC). God is jealous over us. (Ex. 20:5). He knows that it is in our best interest to have a relationship with him; thus, the command to protect our heart from yearning and longing for anything more than we long for Him.
Trauma affects all of us in some form or fashion. “Any life event that leaves us feeling alone without help can be experienced as traumatic” (Jim Wilder). It is not the type or the intensity of the pain alone that determines whether or not events will become traumatic, but feeling alone, with no one to share the impact of our hurt, causes brain circuits to misfire. In those alone times, if the pain exceeds our mental capacity, we become traumatized. This is certainly true when we experience painful events as children, since we do not have the capacity to process pain and grief appropriately. Thus, if painful life experiences in the past were not consistently comforted, it can be very difficult to feel we are not alone in the present. These memories become fragmented and our brain cannot metabolize or process them to a resolution. They remain fragmented and when something happens that triggers either an implicit or explicit memory, we react in our current relationships in a way that reflects this unresolved pain and aloneness from the past. We may not even be aware of that or be able to connect the dots, but it is there none the less, for we all have the same brain functions. For us to process painful experiences they must go through a pain-processing pathway for the brain to fully metabolize them for emotional healing. The therapy protocol EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can help with this.
When we get hurt, activating trauma-based feelings of pain and aloneness can turn off our relational circuits (RC’s). Our brain works better when all parts are integrated and working together. Ruminating negative blaming thoughts over and over about myself, someone who hurt me, or toward God shuts down RC’s. When we feed our brain toxic thoughts we actually build negative neural networks. What fires together wires together. The more negative thoughts we fire off, the stronger they become and each time it takes less effort for them to fire. If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you will always get what you’ve always got (ok bad English I know). And then we sometimes add…and nothing changes. But changes are actually taking place inside your brain and the toxic thoughts are building negative neural networks that are actually taking up space in your brain, firing over and over, and over again. This causes us to get stuck in negative relationship patterns. One way of thinking about this is if we shoved the TV in the closet, shut the door, but left it running. Another possibility is the concept of rain falling on the mountain. As water begins to flow, and invariably takes the path of least resistance it creates a furrow or a trench. Then the next time it rains, the water will follow the same pathway, over and over. Each time, the water will create a deeper groove and the water flows freely in that direction. This is what happens in our brain when we think toxic thoughts. We are creating neural pathways where the negative patterns will fire, over and over. The toxic thoughts become a part of us causing untold misery in our heart, mind, and body. I think this is why Paul instructs us not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, the path of least resistance (Rom 12:2) but to renew our minds.
So, what does that mean? Brain research is now telling us that we can “reformat” our brain. Brain scientists previously believed the brain to be fixed by a certain age, but now they know that the brain is very malleable and continues to change. How can we change our brains? By renewing our mind. How do we renew our minds? By changing our thoughts. Scripture is replete with instructions on how to do this. Paul penned Philippians when he was in jail and facing death, and he wrote, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Phil 4:8)
As we grow, we learn ways to protect ourselves and withdraw from others, shutting down the relational circuits (RC’s) in our brain that must be operational to be able to connect with others and with God. Let’s do a Relational Circuits checklist. Are your RC’s on or off? Are you loving or protecting?
I just want this problem, person or feeling to go away. They need to change, shut-up, get fixed, etc.
I don’t want to listen to what anyone has to say right now. I’m done.
Your mind is “locked onto” something negative and upsetting.
I don’t want to be connected to anyone right now.
I just want to get away. (flee, fight, freeze, vs (staying relational, calm and connected)
I get aggressive, interrogate, judge and try to change or fix others. More focused on the splinter in their eye, rather than the beam in mine.
When you shut down your RC’s, your brain is not functioning integratively. Your right PFC located is in the right frontal part of your brain; just above your right eye and has executive control over the rest of the brain when properly developed. It creates your identity, and when trained well, has the capacity to quiet reactions, direct moral choices, and think creatively and flexibly, sending messages down to the lower parts of the brain, the limbic system and the brain stem. When the PFC is integrated with the lower parts of the brain, it can calm down the automatic reactions and emotions that drive much of our behavior. Even in difficult interactions, the PFC captain maintains a strong, positive and determined self-identity, allowing you to choose who you want to be (the very best you) in any given situation. With the PFC in charge and the parts of the brain are working as an integrative unit, calm, thoughtful decisions can run the show, thinking vs reacting.
Can you hold a positive feeling about another, about God, or even about yourself, in a difficult situation? This is not a cognitive exercise. It is determining if you can actually feel a positive thought toward this person, about another or about God that is true when you would rather disconnect. It is in loving relationships where we connect with safe people and become who God designed us to be. This is particularly true in a vibrant loving relationship with God and Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. Relationships grow through interactions. Example: take a ball of yarn; throw it to another individual while holding one end. As the other person catches it, they will throw it back, while holding onto their end. As this activity repeats you will notice that the connection between you becomes thicker and stronger. The loops of yarn provide a metaphor of how relationships grow through interactions and how you build neural networks. And turning our RC’s back on is essential to restore peace.
Meditating on who God is, and how much He loves and cares for you turns your RC’s on and builds new neural networks. For example: In interacting with God, let’s start with gratitude. Gratitude enhances the well-being of self, and our relationship with God. When interacting with God, we acknowledge God, His care and love for us, but this is a two-way street. We must also stop long enough to reflect on how God responds to our gratitude toward Him. Just as you acknowledge gratitude to a friend, and that friend responds back to you; think about what God might say in response to the gratitude you expressed to Him. The more you do this, the more you turn on relational circuits and the thicker and stronger the relationship with God becomes, the more neural networks created. As you build new neural networks in these exercises, your brain will prune away the old pathways you no longer actively fire. Trauma triggers will be less; you are renewing your mind and thus rebuilding new neural networks in the landscape of your brain. It starts with renewing your mind, which changes your brain, which changes your heart which changes your thinking, changes your brain…etc…. EMDR can help desensitize some of the painful memories and help build new neural networks. If you are tired of sitting in your painful past, firing on old networks, and want to get “unstuck,” want hope for a brighter tomorrow, and learn how to build new neural networks, give call me.
Carol Greenberg, MA, LPC EMDR Certified 512/914-7927
Information from: Life Model Works @ www.Joystartshere.com