Brian had suffered for years from an intractable depression for which he had been hospitalized.
He received varied diagnoses from major depression to bipolar disorder to dependent personality disorder. He had tried many medications that had proven ineffective. The psychiatrist who referred him told me he was hopeless.
I am a trauma therapist well versed in the science of emotions and attachment. Although change takes work, my conviction that the brain and mind heal is unwavering. No one disputes that the body heals itself. You fall and scrape your knee. Then, if you take care of the wound, your body heals. Just like your body heals with proper care, so do your brain and mind.
When he first came to see me, Brian was comatose. He could barely bring himself to speak, and his voice, when I managed to get anything out of him, was meek. His body was rigid, his facial expression blank. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He seemed extremely depressed. But knowing he had been treated for depression for years without good results, I changed the diagnosis to a brain that was suffering from the effects of childhood adversity. He needed to heal from early neglect.
I had hope that Brian could feel better, as I do for everyone. My hope is based on three principles: brain cells move and form new connections throughout our life, relationships change the brain, and working the Change Triangle – a tool to work with emotions – changes the brain. On our own or with another, and not necessarily a therapist, we can take advantage of these three agents of healing.
Norman Doidge MD, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, said, “Within the lab, within science, within neurophysiology, neuroplasticity is established fact — nobody is challenging it.“ The experiences we have shape our brain for better and for worse. Just think of how one traumatic event can change you in an instant. But, so can a positive experience transform you for the better and allow you to heal.
Early childhood development is very powerful because the brain is learning at turbo speed. Our infant and childhood experiences shape who we are and how we feel about ourselves and others. That’s why therapists are always harping on the past.
The good news is that as adults, new experiences continue to stimulate brain cells to fire, and with repetition the brain rewires to form a new normal.
Brian would not have recuperated if brain cells didn’t move and reorganize. He would have stayed the same and had the same symptoms. Instead, he recovered from his condition. Someone as traumatized as Brian, however, could not change his brain alone. He needed a safe and trauma-savvy person to accompany him on his healing journey.
Humans are wired for connection. Safe, loving, and affirming relationships are healing for the brain. Conversely, trauma happens when during high emotional intensity, a person is left alone to cope.
Children especially need a loving and attuned caregiver to help calm and soothe their nervous system during times of emotional distress. To heal, Brian needed to process painful emotions from his past. But the emotions were too intense and too scary to tolerate all by himself. With me, he could face his past. With my reassurance, encouragement and unwavering hope, Brian worked the Change Triangle to move aside his many defenses, transform his shame to self-compassion, and process his buried core emotions.
Tending to core emotions by Working the Change Triangle leads to healing and gives us access to our authentic self. The Change Triangle is a map and a guide to carry us from a place of disconnection back to our true self. It works by getting us reacquainted with core emotions including joy, anger, sadness, fear, and excitement.
Brian, from years of neglect, was completely cut off from his core emotions. Core emotions are what make us feel alive and vital. All Brian could feel was shame and all he wanted to do was hide. In fact, it was shame, as opposed to depression, that was the root of Brian’s suffering.
Whether you change your brain by altering your thought processes, accepting yourself, working the Change Triangle, starting a meditation practice or learning something new, healing is always possible. It may take time, it will take energy, and you may have to experiment to find what is most healing for you. Nevertheless, no matter who you are or how you suffer, it is never too late to heal.