Breathing, eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing are so fundamental that their significance is easily neglected when we’re considering the complexities of mind and behavior.
However, if your sleep is disturbed or your bowels
don’t work, or if you always feel hungry, or if being touched makes you want to scream (as is often the case with traumatized children and adults), the entire organism is thrown into disequilibrium.
It is amazing how many psy chological problems involve difficulties with sleep, appetite, touch, digestion, and arousal.
Any effective treatment for trauma has to address these basic
housekeeping functions of the body. Right above the reptilian brain is the limbic system.
It’s also known as the mammalian brain, because all animals that live in groups and nurture
their young possess one.
Development of this part of the brain truly takes off
after a baby is born. It is the seat of the emotions, the monitor of danger, the
judge of what is pleasurable or scary, the arbiter of what is or is not important
for survival purposes.
It is also a central command post for coping with the
challenges of living within our complex social networks.
The limbic system is shaped in response to experience, in partnership with
the infant’s own genetic makeup and inborn temperament.
(As all parents of
more than one child quickly notice, babies differ from birth in the intensity and nature of their reactions to similar events. Whatever happens to a baby contributes to the emotional and perceptual map of the world that its developing brain creates.
As my colleague Bruce Perry explains it, the brain is formed in a
“use-dependent manner.” This is another way of describing neuroplasticity,
the relatively recent discovery that neurons that “fire together, wire together.
When a circuit fires repeatedly, it can become a default setting–the response most likely to occur. If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it
specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
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