Pain, Trauma & the Brain: Be Mindful of the Whimsy

AAEAAQAAAAAAAARPAAAAJGFlNDliYjFlLTQwNzItNDUzOS1hZWY5LWQ3YTg1ZjAzMDBhNwUnless your Kimmie Schmidt, and you just got out of the bunker you haven’t escaped the craze of adult coloring, and how “mindful” has become the buzz word of the day. Kimmie Schmidt is actually pretty much the embodiment of Mindfulness, in fact her use of Mindfulness in the bunker1 is what makes her UNBREAKABLE.

Coloring books at KMart, and Mindfulness cheekily coming up at least once a day on NPR makes all of us trauma informed therapists squee with joy. Our rainbow drenched brand of Applied Neuroscience is getting some positive attention. There is a science behind why your chronic pain doctor is handing you coloring books and incense. I know where our brains go astray and soft mushy Psychology is becoming more and more of a hard science. Most skills I teach I know where it is touching your brain and why.

my fav go to's for therapy, every item can be gotten for a $1 or less.

my fav go to’s for therapy, every item can be gotten for a $1 or less.

Yes, coloring books, meditation, mindfulness, all of this my little pony hippie crap is more powerful than an opiate, and not via the placebo effect. Mindfulness actually reshapes the brain (google Neuroplasticity2!), and helps it learn to support itself through it’s weak points. What I do got so cool when it started being about touching and reshaping brains all day long. My favs are relighting the Hippocampus like a Christmas tree, and soothing those poor little Amygdala.

The Amygdala and Hippocampus: why we’re all just cranky old dudes and honey badgers

20130109-212300So a brief primer on the Amygdala and Hippocampus: they are essentially the emotional center of the brain. They also happen to be in the center of the brain. The part of us that feels is much older in terms of evolution that our Cerebral Cortex, the home of all of our fancy thoughts. The forebrain is a cranky old dude that doesn’t like anything new.

Our Amygdala and Hippocampus are also the home of our Fight/Flight response. Our Amygdala essentially do the freaking out, and the Hippocampus makes a note of what we freaked out about. There is no reason, there is no higher thought to it at all. Our emotions don’t speak English and they don’t understand reason. They were around before the Cerebral Cortex came up with all that fancy stuff we do, and the forebrain gives about as much of a crap as a honey badger3.

Combined with that did you know that we’re actually stupider than rabbits with how we handle our Fight/Flight response? (I’ll come back to this promise!) We actually really suck at this whole feeling game all together.

The reason why is that what makes us so gosh darn smart is what makes us so dumb. Our big fancy Cerebral Cortex allows us to learn; due to this we do not have instincts. We instead learn through the reality that is around us. Whatever gets us through: that’s what we do. The evolutionary implications are astounding limitless, however, that goes in both directions. We rely on the other human beings around us to teach us how to manage our emotions. Though at best it is like a game of telephone. How we manage our affect is dependent on the teacher, there is no textbook to refer to, no Instinct.

At best we’re imperfect creatures that still cry like babies when we stub our toes, at worst there was a horrible teacher and the child grows up believing that trauma is normal. Most of us fall in the middle. When things are ok we do ok, however, when we hit a problem (*cough* Chronic Pain *cough*) our ability to regulate our affect is derailed because it was never something that we were taught to know how to handle.

What is this affect regulation you speak of and how does it relate to Mindfulness?

This is so simple, and elegantly human let’s just use the dictionary:

af·fect verb

  1. have an effect on; make a difference to.
  2. touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally.

reg·u·la·tion noun

 1. a rule or directive made and maintained by an authority. “planning regulations”
synonyms: rule, ruling, order, directive, act, law, bylaw, statute, edict, canon, pronouncement, dictate, dictum, decree, fiat, command, precept

“they obey all the regulations”
 2. the action or process of regulating or being regulated.
“the regulation of financial markets”
synonyms: adjustment, control, management, balancing

Affect Regulation is the extent to which we are able to control how we are moved by our emotions. Keep in mind we have to learn to do everything. We have no automatic mechanism that teaches us how to do this. Why should we be surprised when we encounter situations and ongoing circumstances that make it impossible for us to control this very thing.

The reality is that our cerebral cortex, the cognitive thinking mind, loves to think that it is the boss. We fill in gaps and make assumptions that what we feel is something that we are controlling, or at the very least that there is reasoning involved. This is all an illusion, nothing more than a trick like . . . pulling a rabbit out of a hat (yes, I’ll get to the rabbits!), so when we are stuck in trying to regulate our affect we try to think through the problem our honey badger emotional brain don’t give a shit, it doesn’t care. It doesn’t even understand the language!

Mindfulness is an elegant form of Affect Regulation

Mindfulness based techniques are all about changing focus. It is teaching the brain to instead of getting caught in the loop of screaming in a foreign language to a honey badger to just shut up and feel better … to instead just pay attention to something else.

Mindfulness techniques are so simple. Coloring is a big one because it immerses us at multiple levels. Engaging the senses, physical activity, and mentally when we have to pick the red or blue pencil. Mindfulness is about breaking out of the magic trick. We recognize that the rabbit was really in the hat all along; that there is sleight of hand, and a dance to how it seems to magically appear and disappear.

What about all the My Little Pony, Play Dough, Hippie Crap? aka the Whimsy

First off the more engaging a therapy tool is, the more effective it is going to be. Also, the more of a Tabula Rasa it is, the more the individual in therapy is going to be able to shape it and use it to work through and learn. So coloring, clay, slinkies, sand, all are great tools for this reason.

They also have underpinning biological implications in that the activity of using these tools reduces the stress response. Clenching and unclenching, stretching, movement, all of it actually has a positive physiological impact on the body. As does attention to the breath. We can go ahead and throw smell in there too. If you look at the face what in the center? What’s in the center of the mid brain? Yup, the honey badger. Our nose is right by the forebrain, in fact the part of the brain that senses smell, the Olfactory Bulb, is in the forebrain.

In fact when I am doing trauma therapy I have to make sure I have multiple types of clay. Play dough has a distinct smell which either makes people want to huff it and hug me because it is associated with positive memories, or throw it in my face and run screaming. Yeah, one of the most important conversations I have with clients is about their favorite brand of Play Dough.

Wait, I remember something, oh yeah when they did that and I did this when I was …

Us crazy hippie Trauma Informed Care4, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy5, & Mindfulness Based6 therapists are more clever than you think. We had to learn how we managed our emotions, there are some very strong memories associated with those first times. Firsts always get a special bookmark on the Hippocampus. So tapping into childhood, in therapeutic setting in a very controlled and appropriate way, gets to our most powerful memories of that skill.

There is some magic in the world though, in the form of Mirror Neurons7. We don’t remember this very well because our big fancy thinking Cerebral Cortex was not fully online yet, however, we used to always laugh when mommy laughed. When mommy tugs on the soft cuddly bear and giggles even if we were screaming we’d start giggling too. Without the Cerebral Cortex we do by imitation, and learn by imitation. So when us sneaky Evidenced Based Therapists pull out the play dough, the sandbox, the stuffed toy, and the slinky we are trying to conjure that magic back up.

The Rabbits: I don’t care about Fight or Flight the danger is FREEZE

We don’t like to talk about the freeze response, though it is the more common mode of the three. When we are met with a threat the Amygdala go all honey badger and have three choices: fight, flee, or freeze. If too much time elapses, and it often does, the default is to freeze. There is a huge evolutionary advantage to the freeze response since it changes heart, breath, and movement to imitate death. Predators don’t tend to like dead things, so if the RABBIT they are going after freezes the magician tends to just DROP it into a hat. This is actually one of the main reasons magicians use rabbits in tricks, because they love to freeze in response to a threat. No worries, the rabbits don’t stress over it like we do.

Biochemically the freeze response is like slamming on the gas and the breaks in a car at the same time. True fact since I do a lot of therapy in my car I actually do this and man does it get the message across! Yes, I am parked, with with emergency break on . . .

The freeze response physically messes us up in many ways. If you want some of the very very many here’s a start8. We also rely on being taught on how to deal with things, and if a lion was actually about to eat us mommy wasn’t there to try and make us laugh. So instead we just get stuck in this nasty freeze place.

Rabbits are far smarter (and Taylor Swift!). They stay frozen until the trick is over and the lion/magician is gone. Then they slowly get up, and they shake. They literally, yes, Shake it Off. The tremors and shaking actually allow that biochemical potential energy of the freeze response to release. Almost every, if not every, other animal on planet earth that has a Hippocampus and Amygdala knows to do this from birth. We’re dumb, we have to learn stuff, like giggling with mom in the sandbox, and Mindfulness.

But you don’t have to take my word for it!


Do you like this article? Do you think that articles with some science in them are a good thing? Please read about Santa for Anna, and why a couple dollars could make this even better by increasing my access to scientific journals.

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