Tag Archives: Dissociation

Polyvagal Theory: Trauma as Reptilian Freeze

Polyvagal Theory Book Amazon1Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges appeared in my last few blogs; let’s explore his 1994 discovery of the Polyvagal Theory.  Dr. Porges runs brain-body research at top psychiatry departments (University of Chicago and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill).

And he always says he wasn’t looking for a polyvagal theory. He was just researching ways to measure the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve running between the brain stem and most of the body.

Until 1994, textbooks said there are two parts to the autonomous nervous system (ANS).  First, the sympathetic system mobilizes us for fight and flight, but is harmful if it stays on too long, making us tense, anxious and prone to disease. Second, the parasympathetic inhibits mobilization, so it was believed to be calming and healthy. Textbooks taught that “the net result was a balance between a pair of two antagonistic systems,” Porges says. The vagus nerve makes up a chunk of the parasympathetic; “it functions like a brake on the heart’s pacemaker.” [FN]

This two-part model broke down “as I was conducting research with human newborns to measure heart rate, assuming vagal activity was protective,” Porges says. “If newborns had good clinical outcomes, they had a lot of vagal heart rate going up and down with breathing. Babies with flat heart rates were at risk.  So I wrote a paper in the journal Pediatrics to educate neonatologists.

“Following publication, I received a letter from a neonatologist who noted that… the vagus could kill you, and that perhaps too much of a good thing was bad. His comments startled and motivated me to challenge our understanding of the nervous system.

“I immediately understood what the neonatologist meant. From his perspective, the vagus can kill, since it is capable of life threatening bradycardia and apnea — massive slowing of heart rate and cessation of breathing. For many pre-term infants, bradycardia and apnea are life threatening.  I now framed the ‘vagal paradox.’  How could the vagus be both protective and lethal? For months I carried the neonatologist’s letter in my briefcase.”

Poly Faces of Vagus

Polyvagal Anatomy Diagram

Porges went back to the evolution of anatomy, and saw that in fact there are two different vagus circuits — a total of three ANS circuits, not just a pair.  The two circuits “come from two different areas of the brain stem, and they evolved sequentially,” one far earlier.

“This motivated me to develop the polyvagal theory, which uncovered the anatomy and function of two vagal systems, one potentially lethal, and the other protective,” he says.

“Immobilization, bradycardia, and apnea are components of a very old, reptilian defense system, ” Porges says. “If you look at reptiles, you don’t see much behavior — because immobilization is the primary defense system for reptiles… it’s an ancient vagus nerve.”  This pre-historic nerve has no myelin, a nerve coating of  protective protein and fat.

Porges found mammals have this unmyelinated vagus, on the dorsal (top) side of the nerve, which immobilizes us, too —  “and that immobilization reaction, adaptive for reptiles, is potentially lethal for mammals.”

Porges also saw that among the “firsts” which began with mammals, a new vagus with myelin develops on the ventral underside of the nerve.  “So mammals have two vagal circuits,” he found. ” The myelinated circuits provide more rapid and tightly organized responses. The new mammalian vagus is linked to brain stem areas that regulates the muscles of the face and head. Every intuitive clinician knows that if they look at people’s faces and listen to voices,  controlled by muscles of the face and head, they know the physiological state of their client.”

Neuroception:  It’s Just Not Cognitive

Porges adds that our more primitive neural circuits operate by “neuroception” — totally involuntarily.  “Neuroception is not perception,” he says. “Neuroception does not require an awareness of things going on.  It is detection without awareness. It is a neural circuit that evaluates risk in the environment… When confronted in certain situations, some people experience autonomic responses such as an increase in heart rate and sweating hands. These responses are involuntary. It is not like they want to do this.”

The polyvagal theory emphasizes that our nervous system has more than one defense strategy – and whether we use mobilized flight/flight or  immobilization shutdown, is not a voluntary decision.  Outside the realm of our conscious awareness, our nervous system is continuously evaluating risk in the environment, making judgments, and prioritizing behaviors that are not cognitive.

Next, he says, “humans and other mammals, as fight/flight machines, only work if they can move and do things. But if we are confined, if we are placed into isolation, or if we are strapped down, our nervous system reads those cues and functionally wants to immobilize.  I can give you two interesting examples: one is a news clip I saw on CNN and the second  from my own personal experience.

“I saw a CNN news broadcast with a video clip of a plane whose wings were tipping up and down as the plane was tossed by the wind. The plane did land safely and the reporter went to interview the people. He asked one of the passengers how it felt to be in a plane that looked like it would crash. Her response left the reporter speechless. She said, “Feel? I passed out.” For this woman, the cues of a life threat triggered the ancient vagal circuit. We don’t have control over this circuit.

“Many people who report abuse especially sexual abuse, experience being held down or physically abused. These abused clients often describe a psychological experience of not being there. They dissociate or pass out. The abusive event  triggered an adaptive response, to enable them not to experience the traumatic event.”

Porges’ second example, noted in my Aug. 22 blog, was his own attempt to have an MRI – in which his body flat out overruled his powerful thinking brain. “I wanted the MRI.  But something happened to my body when I entered the MRI that triggered my nervous system into…wanting me to mobilize to get out of there.” So the nurses let him out.

Porges was asked by one interviewer, “What would have happened if you called to be let out — but no one came?”

“Now we’re talking!,” said Dr. P. “So now I am stuck in there, I can’t get out; I am in this confined area. That would be totally like being physically abused, being held down, going through all these same things.” Like the plane passenger who defaulted back in evolution to her most primitive system, he might have dissociated or passed out.

“The problem, of course, is how do you get people back out of that?” Porges asks. ” If a life threat puts a human into this state, it may be very difficult to reorganize to become ‘normal’ again.”

Friday Sept. 26:  Videos and audios on Polyvagal Theory

Friday Oct. 3: Dr. Porges on how to “get people back out of” the reptilian freeze of trauma.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011, http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20interview%20nicabm.pdf
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/NICABM%202013.pdf
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/nicabm2.pdf
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago, www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

31,569 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

Mammalian Attachment System Heals Trauma

Stephen Porges magesDr. Stephen Porges writes in his groundbreaking “Polyvagal Theory” that mammals like us aren’t made for trauma.  We’re made primarily to attach to other mammals, which makes us feel safe, secure and good.  When that fails, we’re also made to go into a secondary fall-back option of fight/flight; we get aggressive or at least defensive. And it feels bad; we know something’s wrong.

But we’re not made to be in fight/flight for a long time, so when we’re caught in fight/flight and can’t get out, mammals are forced back into a third, even more primitive system: reptilian freeze, aka immobilization or dissociation.

“If you go to a pet store and look at the reptiles, you don’t see much behavior, because immobilization is the primary defense system for reptiles,” says Porges. “But if you look at the small mammals, hamsters and mice, they are running around. They are socializing.”

“Some reptiles can shut down and go underwater for several hours and be fine. The shut-down system works well if you are a reptile, because reptiles don’t need much oxygen and don’t need to support a big brain…

“But this immobilization reaction… is potentially lethal for mammals. If a life threat triggers a biobehavioral response that puts a human into this state, it may be very difficult to reorganize to become ‘normal’ again,”  he warns. [FN]

I talked about that kind of trauma last blog.  I was suddenly thrust into a medical system that ignored all these mammalian basics.  No matter to whom I turned for communication and  information, nobody saw me, nobody heard my questions, nobody seemed to care what happened. No mammalian response.

So instead of being about to simply sit and be “Present” with the sudden survival threat of a surgical knife coming at me, I had to take all the perfectly normal fight/flight feelings which that causes, and “stuff  it.”  Because I had to push myself into hunting and gathering all that info alone. Which threw me into reptilian freeze, just as my body was designed by the Manufacturer to do.  That’s trauma.

Mammals Should Be Seen – And Heard

Cats Bad Day, I fix itBut, good news: I got out of that trauma in under a week, thanks to Dr. Porges’ primary state: mammalian attachment.

The first thing that happened was I took a step myself, to get myself “seen” and “heard” – I wrote that blog.  It went out to almost a thousand readers, and the response was terrific.  In particular, lots of nice warm mammals in my Life Team support system started to call and write to me, and wow did that feel good.

“Dearest Kathy,” wrote one reader, “I just read your latest blog post, and it sounds rough.  I hope things are calming down and straightening out, and I wish I could be there to help. Do call if you want. – A big, warm, long hug….”

Now this gal and I go way back decades, though she’s on the east coast where I haven’t seen her since 2009. But we were attached mammals for so long, that in 2011 I woke up one morning dreaming I’d been singing Handel’s  Messiah, things went terribly wrong – but suddenly there at the foot of the stage, she appeared – to give me a big hug. “Oh!  It’s her!  She knows me. She sees me — the real me, the me who really is.”

And about three hours later that same day in 2011, my cell phone rang and…. it was her.  Across 3,000 miles.

“The evolution of the nervous system starts with the un-myelinated vagus nerve, which does immobilization. Reptiles have this oldest defensive system,“ says Porges.

“With mammals, a newer circuit, a uniquely mammalian vagus which is myelinated, comes online.  So mammals have two vagal circuits, which originate in different areas of the brain stem. The new mammalian vagus is linked in the brain stem to areas that regulates the muscles of the face and head.  Every clinician knows that if they look at people’s faces and listen to their voices, which are controlled by muscles of the face and head, they will know the physiological state of their client.

“If we are protected with the newer mammalian vagal circuit, we do fine. When our mammalian social engagement system is working, we feel calm, we hug people, we look at them and we feel good.

“These mammalian part of our  nervous system  enables social interactions to calm our physiology and to support health, growth, and restoration.  When a person is facially expressive, has vocal intonation, has an expressive face and whose eyes are open when we talk to them,”  then we feel seen, heard, and connected.

“Thank you for actually ‘seeing’ me and knowing me,” I wrote back to my gal pal last week after she saw my blog. “It’s got everything to do with plain old simple mammalian attachment, in which we  just ‘be with’ each other, and feel safe.

“And just this morning, it hit me: Oh, Mom again. I was under survival threat as an infant because I was raised in a glass box, which is interpreted by the infant brain stem as a survival threat. Google ‘Still Face Experiment’  – it shows how infants go nuts when nobody sees them, nobody hears them – nobody responds.

“So today, survival threat  (surgical knife) will cause me to over-react.  ‘Of course’ says my wonderful attachment-based psychotherapist,  ‘it’s baked into your brain stem.  Give yourself some grace, have your reaction, and then do the reality check.’   So when the doctors exhibit the same reptilian behavior as Mom: nobody hears me, nobody sees me, nobody responds?   ‘Of course’ — bam, it  triggers the whole infant deep neurological experience.

“The minute I put that together, I had a good cry, then started to feel absolutely fantastic.  Because suddenly I knew: it’s not about the doctors or the surgery — it’s about my mammalian attachment system.  No matter what happens with the surgery or the doctors, it won’t matter – as long as I get with mammals.  And what a relief.

“Because now I do have mammalian attachment to my friends, my therapist, and a few other important people – like God – now I do have “Safe People.”

“So suddenly now the surgery is no big deal because the doctors will do a great technical job like well-trained reptiles, and back to what really counts, my mammalian support system is taking care of my mammal needs big time.  Which brought me an enormous relief of tension, and feeling of support.”

And no sooner did I figure this out, than my email dings –  and it’s her again.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN  Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011, http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20interview%20nicabm.pdf
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/NICABM%202013.pdf
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/nicabm2.pdf
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago, www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

7,591 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

Fire Up the Right Brain

Dan Siegel Website PicWhen we last left Stewart the 92-year-old lawyer in Dan Siegel’s office June 25,  “the presenting problem was:  his wife got sick, and he became more socially withdrawn… losing himself in his books,” Siegel said. “Rather than confronting what the illness of his wife of 65 years brought up in him, this unbelievable sense of vulnerability which he wasn’t prepared to sit with, he withdrew into his law books.”  [FN1]

Stewart could handle and remember lots of facts, like his or others birth dates, a left brain function.  But he had little or no emotional response, nor could he recall much about his fleshed-out lived experiences, like what he did on his son’s first birthday, a right brain function.  Pure dissociation.  “I think you’re living with half a brain,” Siegel told him.

So Dan set out to grow Stewart’s right brain.

“Our right human hemisphere is all about this present moment,” says brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor. “Information, in the form of energy, streams in through all of our sensory systems, then it explodes into an enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and sounds like.” [FN2]

Here’s what Dan did: “I told Stewart that I thought if we could drive energy and information flow through the right hemisphere of his brain, over a three to four month period, I believed we could stimulate neuronal activation and growth: we could get new synapses to form in the right brain that had never formed before.”

Dan gave Stewart a series of exercises which only the right brain could handle, so the neurons in Stewart’s spectacularly developed logical left brain would have to just stop firing awhile.  His right brain would have to step up. [FN3]

Fire the Right Brain Neurons

Brain_superior-lateral_viewFirst, Siegel said, the right hemisphere specializes in non-verbal responses, facial recognition and imitation, and other mammal to mammal relational expressions and body language – as distinct from verbal language and logic which are left brain actions.

So Dan started miming emotions with his face and body, only — no words. And Stewart had to try to mimic back his face and body motions — no words. “I would make a face, and he would imitate it—not name it because that would be bilateral integration, ” said Dan. “We wanted to get his right hemisphere going, and the right specializes in non-verbal response and facial recognition.”   Stewart watched while Dan demonstrated an emotion non-verbally, with face, with hands and body, and gradually Stewart found he could make his own face, hands and body imitate Dan — all without logic or speech.

Then Dan reversed it, having Stewart mime something without words, while Dan tried to imitate him. “It kind of became fun actually, like a game,” Dan said. “For homework, I would have him watch television with the sound turned off, so that his left hemisphere, which does language, wouldn’t get stimulated. The right hemisphere had to start watching the shows, and he had to get his right hemisphere to work.”

Second, Dan knew that emotions, as the word implies, arise  first as bodily sensations — motion in the body parts — which is communicated as raw data via body nerves to the brain, and finally analyzed and interpreted by the mind as “feelings.” But emotions, like most bodily data, are shunted to the right side of the brain for interpretation, as Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describe the way incoming sensory data goes to the right brain, above.

Dan thought Stewart didn’t have that right brain function of assembling a map of how his body felt — which was why he didn’t have emotions. So he taught Stewart to create in his mind, an integrated map of his body, which only the right brain can do.

Dan taught Stewart to do “body scans,” in which attention is focused strongly and willfully (“mindfully”) on what is going on first in our head, then our face,  neck, chest, belly, legs, and so on, for prolonged periods of time — something Stewart had never spent 10 minutes on in 92 years. “He couldn’t check into his body to say, my heart is pounding, my stomach is churning, I’m breathing fast,” said Dan, so how could he know he was feeling an emotion?

Third, Dan gives Stewart autobiographical exercises. “I asked him, ‘before you came to the office, you woke up. How did you wake up?’  He said he got up, he had breakfast, and he got in the car. I said ‘Let’s back that up, which foot got out of the bed first?’  He had to go from factual memory, to having a sense-of-self in time. That’s a right hemisphere specialty. Obviously your sense of self, if you don’t have an autobiographical sense of self, is pretty thin.

“Now you would say: hold on, my left foot got up, and then I had breakfast. How? You didn’t fly to the kitchen…Well I went to the toilet first, then I washed my face, then I took a step, etc…  Then he would start making a map of what he experienced that morning…

“And over time, with autobiographical memory exercises, non-verbal exercises, bodily exercises, and starting to then name feelings, we would put on facial expressions of these feelings — and then he started to change.  It was actually quite startling.

“One moment is telling…  He had mentioned that his brother had lost his leg in a skiing accident, but it didn’t matter, you know, because of his dismissal of relationships. He knew the facts of it, but not the feelings of it. A few months later, he was saying something about his grandchildren going skiing, and I thought there was something related to his brother, so I brought it up and he started to get tearful. I asked him if it was about his brother, he said no.

“I asked him what he was feeling and he looked at me and said that he couldn’t believe that I had remembered what he’d said, and that I really knew him. He said, ‘I can’t believe you remember who I am.’  And there was this shift of the feeling of his presence in the room.  He began to be able to articulate that he felt sad, that he could feel heaviness in his chest, that he was aware of his body in new ways.

“It was a moment of connection with him that didn’t exist before. And from that time onward the feeling in the room was like I had a whole person with me. There was this natural unfolding.  Once you allow these areas to be differentiated and honored, they can naturally find a linkage often.  And that’s what happened with Stewart.

“Empathy became something he did. With the right hemisphere focused on his interior, it also naturally began to focus on the interior of other people — me, his wife, his friends.  And that Presence you have when you’re interested in the interior world of other people, is a totally different way of being on the planet.

“His son reported that his presence around his grandchildren really changed. There was even one time Stewart came in and told me that I wasn’t going to believe what happened. He said they were saying goodbye to some people, and his wife put her hand on his shoulder, and he told her it felt good. Then she asked him if he wanted a back massage because in 65 years of marriage, he never let her do that. So she gave him a shoulder massage, and he said it felt fantastic. I asked why he’d said no for 65 years, and now at 92, he said yes.

“He said that he had been so terrified his entire life of needing anyone because he was never able to need anyone in his childhood, and that now he felt as if he could be that vulnerable to his wife and he could say that he needed her.

“His wife actually called me and asked me if I had given him a brain transplant because he had become a different person.  It wasn’t just that he was more present with relationships; internally, he felt this sort of playfulness. So, that’s how we could tell that something shifted with him.

“It was incredible and I have to say if it were just Stewart, I’d feel really nervous about reporting such a thing in a book, but I’ve worked with a lot of people with avoidant attachment histories, who as adults have dismissed attachment with the same paradigm, and it comes out the same way almost every time. [FN5]

“Now I get these beautiful cards from Stewart every winter. The last one said, ‘Dan, you cannot believe how much fun I’m having. Thank you’.”


Next Friday August 15:  Special guest blog on how the ACE Study is finally being put to good use in pediatrics


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Bio, website, and more of Dan’s books in Footnotes at end of http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/Daniel-Siegel-3/

FN1    Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “The Developing Mind,” National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), Apr 6, 2011 p.20-22   www.nicabm.com Apr 6, 2011 p.20-22

FN2   Jill Bolte Taylor,  “My Stroke of Insight,” Ted Talk of Feb. 2008,  http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight

FN3   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” NICABM, www.nicabm.com; 2010 Webcast; my first NICABM webinar, downloaded March 31, 2011; rebroadcast October 11, 2011. http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/meditation-medication/ and http://www.nicabm.com/mindfulness-2011-new/

FN4   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are,” (Guilford, 1999).  How attachment in infancy and childhood creates the brain and the mind.

2,951 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

Dan Siegel: Creating a Joyful Brain

Dan Siegel Quote on EmotionI’ve got some great short videos here by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD  — and even his friend comedienne Goldie Hawn makes an appearance.

I’ve also had a lot of demand for my book — but it’s not done. I’ve been too wrapped up in my fascination with brain science and lots of great networking resulting from that. Now I need to chain myself to my book files, so I’ll be blogging only every other Friday.

As reported the last few weeks, Dr. Siegel details how often we feel lousy because actually our brains are wired wrong from childhood. And now Siegel has shown we can actually heal that and rewire our brains. A fun and heartwarming video by Dan which elaborates this theme “How you can change your brain” is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4tR5Ebc4Mw&index=22&list=PL1A32ED7EF5F192F2

We often get sad-wired with attachment trouble as kids while the brain’s forming, due to implicit — body-only — memory created before we reach age 3, before we can think and remember. Two videos by Dan on this topic are here:
and here:

In coming weeks, I’ll be blogging on how Siegel actually healed the split-up brain of a 92-year-old lawyer.  The gentleman had great cognition, but couldn’t feel anything at all. It’s an amazing story.   To prepare, check out this video by Dan called “On Integrating the 2 hemispheres of our brains”  at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPjhfUVgvOQ&index=24&list=PL1A32ED7EF5F192F2

Dan on “Being” Versus “Doing” With Your Child – This video really helps show how poor Stewart the lawyer got so messed up as a child, because of lack of emotional connection in his birth home.  My blog introducing Stewart is at http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/daniel-siegel-4/

Stewart was taught as a kid to think about facts, but he couldn’t feel a thing.  It’s all in the development of our right brain vs our left brain.  Click here for Dan’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGUEDtGSwW4

Dan Siegel & Friend Explore the Brain: Mindfulness and Neural Integration at TEDx.  Dr. Siegel shows more on how mindfulness and meditation can help rewire our brains. Then a school kid walks on camera, and you’ll love what happens next.  Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiyaSr5aeho

Dan Siegel with Goldie Hawn at TEDMed 2009:  The comedienne explains her hunt for the “science of happiness” and how she teamed up with Dr. Dan.  Now they make school kids happy by helping them harness their brain power and grow mindfulness. It does turn out to create great joy — and better grades.  Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OdBXGHwNCk&index=19&list=PL1A32ED7EF5F192F2

Mindfulness meditation has become an increasingly popular way for people to improve their mental and physical health…New research from Carnegie Mellon University shows even brief mindfulness meditation practice – 25 minutes for three consecutive days – alleviates stress.  Go here for more:  http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-07-minutes-mindfulness-meditation-alleviates-stress.html

I promised to blog on how Siegel actually healed poor Stewart’s split-up brain; I will, in Dan Siegel Part 5 (available here on Friday Aug. 8).


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


For Dr. Dan Siegel’s biography, website, books and more: see Footnotes at bottom of  http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/Daniel-Siegel-3/

5,101 total views, no views today

Share Button

Dissociation Nation: Half a Brain

Dan Siegel Podium w. BrainDan Siegel’s webinar “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” which I found by accident in March 2011, insisted that we can re-wire our brains. Siegel actually used neuroplasticity and “mindsight” (see July 11 blog) to re-wire the brain of a ninety-two year old lawyer code-named “Stewart.” [FN1]

Stewart was an extreme case, but it’s how most of us live these days.  We live in “head talk” in our frontal cortex, pretty much in dissociation from the emotions in our mammalian limbic brain. Stewart existed entirely in his thinking brain, but said he didn’t know what feelings were.  He had almost no use of his emotional brain.  “He’s a good example of a need for bilateral integration,” as Siegel put it.

Emotions?  We think the objective is to get rid of ‘em, just “grow up” and be rational like Spock on Star Trek.  “Too many Americans are spurred to achieve (business, academia, etc.) rather than to attach (to other human mammals), warn three top psychiatrists in the key book “A General Theory of Love.”  We’ve been taught that our performance is our identity, so we over-perform, thinking non-stop. That leaves almost no hours for “face time” to simply “be” with and be present with live human beings.

Yet in fact emotions are sanity and mental health, not the reverse.  And that’s not an endorsement of road rage.  But we need secure attachment as kids, while our emotions first develop, to learn to govern (regulate) emotions by sharing them with our human mammal living group so we don’t go nuts.  Yet sharing emotions is far out of style these days, and  in the last census, “one third of American households were one person,” as Dr. Bruce Perry notes.  Having no social option, we dissociate from our emotions.

Stewart began acting strangely when his wife of sixty five years took ill, so his son brought dad to see Siegel. “Stewart comes in and his son says that he thinks his dad might be depressed,” Siegel said. “Stewart was withdrawn and cantankerous, but the feeling I got wasn’t that he was sad or depressed, but that there was something just kind of vacuous and disconnected about him.  When I got to talk to Stewart alone, he still didn’t seem depressed.  He seemed more aloof than anything else.”

Stewart’s thinking brain was in great shape; “his cognition at ninety-two was totally intact—excellent memory for facts,” said Siegel, and his legal business was  successful.

But when Siegel checked on Stewart’s emotions, the gent drew a complete blank.

Living with Half a Brain

Jill Bolte Taylor Brain Halves Crop, Ted 2-08And Stewart drew the biggest blank when Siegel asked him about his emotions during childhood.

“I did a brief Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) assessment, which I do with most of my patients,” Siegel said. (See my all-new blog on the AAI here; finally got the story.) The AAI shows how emotionally close the adult interviewee got to their parents as a child.

But that just annoyed Stewart. “He thought it was absolutely a moot point that I was reviewing his relationship with his parents almost 90 years ago…

“ ‘You’re out of your mind’ Stewart said,” Siegel laughed. “He insisted that ‘relationships didn’t matter,’ his son said; ‘he’s always had that attitude.’ ”  Stewart’s wife had more data.  “She said that his parents, as Stewart had also factually stated, were ‘the coldest people on the planet.’ They lacked the ability to see the internal world. Everything was about managing Stewart’s behavior and his physical externals—his food, his shelter, his schooling — but nothing was focused on feelings or thoughts, or the meaning of  things.”

Siegel pushed back, telling Stewart that they had to look into his childhood because “synaptic connections get formed early in life.” And then it came out that Stewart couldn’t remember much about his childhood experiences at all; he only remembered logical facts such as dates. This showed “a big difference between the left and right hemispheres of his brain,” said Siegel. Stewart could handle lots of facts with his left brain, but lacked recall of fleshed-out experiences, which are more an emotional phenomenon in the right brain.

Then Siegel gave Stewart the bottom line; he said that likely Stewart’s wife’s illness “had made him go more into withdrawal from relationships.”  He also said that his tests of right and left hemisphere functioning showed that Stewart’s right brain “wasn’t very developed.”

“I said, ‘I don’t think you’re depressed. I think you’re living with half a brain.

“And… I just want to offer you the idea that you did the best you could in childhood, but the lack of focus on you internal world didn’t develop that part of your brain, so you’ve lived a life dominated by one side and not the other.”

The photo above shows the actual normal separation of the two halves of a human brain, connected only at bottom by the corpus callosum, displayed by Jill Bolte Taylor in “My Stroke of Insight” on Ted Talks in February 2008.

“And when I asked how it felt when I said that, he paused and said he didn’t know what that question meant. He said that for his whole life, people have asked him how he felt, and he had no idea what they were talking about,” Siegel went on.

“Then, he paused again and said, ‘Maybe before I die, I can learn what that question means.’

“So then we went on a journey together,” Siegel said, “and the idea is this: if a part of your brain is underdeveloped, not destroyed, but underdeveloped, it can be changed. And even if it’s destroyed maybe you can sometimes get around that, as in abuse. I want to make sure to say that. Neuroplasticity, as you’ll see in Stewart’s case, exists throughout the lifespan.”

Next Friday August 1: More current news and videos from Dan Siegel and his collaborators.

Next blog Friday August 8:  Siegel and Stewart’s journey… not forgetting Jill Bolte Taylor.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


For biography, website, books and more: see Footnotes at bottom of  http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/Daniel-Siegel-3/

FN1   Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), www.nicabm.com; 2010 Webcast and my first NICABM webinar, downloaded March 31, 2011. Rebroadcast October 11, 2011.  http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/meditation-medication/ and http://www.nicabm.com/mindfulness-2011-new/

4,154 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

The Hole in Me

Philip Seymour Hoffman“Philip Seymour Hoffman is another victim of extremely stupid drug laws,” writes Russell Brand in The Guardian on Feb. 6 at www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/2014/feb/06/russell-brand-philip-seymour-hoffman-drug-laws   I posted this Feb. 7 in the comments of his article:

What causes that “pain” which drives us to use?  Russell calls it “the hole in me,”  “the gutter within,”  “the unfulfillable void,” his “private hell.”  What causes “the hole in my soul,” as William Moyers dubs it in “Broken,” in the first place?

It’s all about “the hole in me.”  Hardly anyone speaks of it – but “the hole” is the real problem. Hardly anyone speaks of it because 50% of the population in most OECD countries suffers some degree of it and it scares the heck out of us all.

Russell Brand says 10% have this pain so severely, they use hard drugs and alcohol.  OECD statistics show upwards of 30% of us have it so bad we abuse food and are overweight to obese, which kills too.  I’ve not seen statistics on child abuse, gambling, or  “respectable business folk” like me or my ex husband who are work-aholics or addicted to sports, political power, abusive romance, internet porn, sex, and so on. That’s at least another 10% (if not far higher).

In fact, the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study of over 17,400 college-educated employed Americans done by top medical doctors shows that over 50% of Americans have some form of childhood trauma and of these, a significant percent suffer from food, alcohol, or other addictions.

Plus, it showed that we die prematurely of both these “hard” and “soft” addictions — the stress eats away our body parts. It shows ACEs are the primary causes in the first place of heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and the other top ten causes of death in the U.S.

Hole Under My Feet

Loss That Is Forever Maxine HarrisI discovered “the hole in me” by accident. I never heard of it, either, after 50+ years of extensive education. After my divorce in 2008 I just starting saying “I have a hole in my heart” because I literally felt it in my chest.

In 2009 I got Dr. Robin Norwood’s “Women Who Love Too Much” which says that if we simply sit quietly, we can “feel the wind blowing through the empty place where our heart should be.”  I could feel the hole in my chest.  She notes that this is why we never sit quietly (without which cure is impossible). [FN1]

In 2010 I got “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman, case studies of people who were little when their moms died, and a similar book by Dr. Maxine Harris. My Mom died in 2008; why read such books?  It fell into my hands “by accident.” Yet time and again the case study subjects spoke of growing up feeling as though they had a “hole under their feet” or a “hole in the heart.”  [FN2]

I started to bawl as it hit me that I’d felt as if I had a “hole under my feet’ all my conscious life.  I just alternated between denial and praying my parents wouldn’t notice my terror.  My first memory of TV was a documentary about open heart surgery on a “blue baby” with cardiac perforation. As the camera showed a scalpel probing a gap in bloody tissue, the announcer intoned, “Here is the hole in Julie’s heart.”  I could never forget his voice.

Last month, I finally heard a specialist identify “the hole” as that which must be cured or nothing works. It was therapist Dr. Tara Brach in her talk “Reacting Wisely to Desire” (Aug.10, 2011) min 24: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hka8c4OteYA

She quotes William Moyers, an alcoholic activist, speaking at a scientific conference. “I was born with a ‘hole in my soul,’ a pain that came from the reality that I just wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t deserving enough, that you weren’t paying attention to me, that you didn’t like me,” he said. “For us addicts, recovery is more than a pill or a shot. Recovery is about dealing with that hole in the soul.”

“Drugs and alcohol are not my problem — reality is my problem. Drugs and alcohol are my solution,” as Russell Brand told The Spectator March 9, 2013: www.spectator.co.uk/features/8857821/fixing-a-hole/

Parts of My Brain Are Dark

But what is this “reality” of so many human beings?  What causes the “hole” and “private hell of pain” in the first place?

Brousblog1a Perry brains X-secThe cause of “the hole in my soul” is Attachment Disorder, a mental and physiological condition both, which results from injury to an infant or child’s brain stem while the brain is still developing.

Science has only recently demonstrated that unless kids (and other mammals) are given solid emotional connection and eye contact (“attachment”) from birth by parents or others, infant neurological systems just don’t develop well. The infant brain literally requires programming by an adult’s eyes and facial expressions to begin to program its own neurons, dubbed “Limbic Resonance” and documented in “A General Theory of Love.” [FN3]

When a mother doesn’t respond to her baby this way (she’s being battered, stress at work, is unable to attune to others), the infant’s brain stem reads that as a survival threat.  This floods its bloodstream with fight/flight stress chemicals.  If an adult doesn’t make the baby feel safe, stress chemicals overwhelm its brain and within 45 minutes the baby goes into shock (dissociation). [FN4]

What began as emotional stress ends in physical brain damage. We can now do brain scans showing that whole chunks of neurons in some brain regions don’t fire; I felt this as “parts of my brain are dark.” There is literally a “hole in me.” You can see the dark holes in the brain scans above; the left side is a normal 3-year old, and the right side a 3-year-old with attachment disorder. [FN5] The pain we feel is immense; more in:  http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/ the-silent-epidemic-of-attachment-disorder/

That’s why an “attachment wound” made when a lover (for example) rejects us sends us running to our drug, as Russell almost did in March (see his Spectator piece). It touches the original wound, an infant or childhood wound buried deep and not accessible to consciousness.

“As a baby’s precarious neurophysiology falls under the steadying spell of his mother… he is modulating his emotions via an external source… an attuned parent can sooth him; he cannot sooth himself,” as “General Theory” reports. “As a consequence of thousands of these interactions, a child learns to self-quiet… The child of emotionally balanced parents will be resilient to life’s minor shocks…

“Those who miss out… find that in adulthood, their emotional footing pitches beneath them like the deck of a boat in rough waters. They are incomparably reactive to the loss of their anchoring attachments — without assistance,they are thrown back on threadbare resources. The end of a relationship is then not mere poignant, but incapacitating.” [FN3 op.cit., p.156-8]

That’s what Russell Brand said drove him off the edge and halfway down the freeway to a Santa Monica crack house just last year — his woman broke the attachment bond (see his March 2013 Guardian piece).

I’ve felt doubled over in just that way by romance so many times. Now I know why and I know what drove my addictions.

Alcoholics Anonymous Works

That’s why the “attachment wound” responds to the compassionate sound of a friend’s voice when Russell calls from LA to London; the pain eases for a day.

Addiction as Attachment Disorder Philip FloresThat’s why the “Anonymous” programs work: we have a wound made when we didn’t get the simple human acceptance and compassion that a child’s very brain needs to grow. When we walk into a room of co-sufferers and we receive that human acceptance, and compassion, it literally fires up some of those dark neurons in our brain, and the pain eases. With regular attendance, this can work for decades.

See “Addiction as an Attachment Disorder” by therapist Philip J. Flores. [FN6] See also numerous related studies in “Does Science Show What 12 Steps Know?,” Aug. 2013: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130809-addiction-twelve-steps-alcoholics-anonymous-science-neurotheology-psychotherapy-dopamine/

But why do people like Philip Seymour Hersh or Russell Brand relapse after twenty or thirty years?  Why do I still feel the occasional twinge from my old addictions, after four years clean and nearly 24 x 7 study of all this?  (Hope it’s not my new addiction…)  Blame genes if you like but I don’t buy it.

The “Anonymous” programs are as indispensable as food or water; without their “people support” we can’t even make a start. Yet they can’t possibly provide enough support or go deep enough to heal the original wound.

When will we see that “so many broken people” must be caused by society’s ignorance, and not by the individual user’s screw-up?  Why is the true cause of all this pain never addressed?   Society is militantly oblivious and illiterate about it.  And why?

Some 50% of the population in most OECD countries suffers some degree of the childhood emotional pain of Attachment Disorder. There’s an Adult Attachment Interview which has been used by psychologists in enough studies to prove it since 1994. [FN7]  The ACE Study backs this up with 17,400+ hard medical exam statistics.

The number is so high that the very existence of Attachment Disorder and of its symptoms are literally incomprehensible to most who suffer from it.  Sufferers include large percentages of “high achievers” in business and government.  Denial is rampant to the point of arrogance.

Our entire society is virtually structured for, and dedicated to, the precise purpose of providing these distractions from the “hole within.”  Such distractions give us temporary bursts of endorphins to ease the pain.  But since they can’t heal the real pain, we require more and more of our addictions until the stress kills us.

Fact is, 50% of us have some degree of “hole within,” and 40% are in denial.  The other 50% are uneducated.

Until the “hole in the brain” from Adult Attachment Disorder, and the causes of Adult Attachment Disorder are addressed, the 40% who don’t use hard-core drugs or booze, will go on wagging their fingers at the 10% who do use – blaming the wounded for the wound.  These superior folks have the same wound killing them, only more slowly.

We need mass education to publicize the cause of the “hole in the soul” so that people know not to walk around all their lives thinking they are the only one on earth who feels it.  We need publicity to wake up the many who don’t feel the hole because their hyperactivity and addictions numb them – especially those in high places.

Congressmen check their cholesterol, but Adverse Childhood Experiences are the real cause of heart disease as the ACE Study shows.  If they knew the truth, wouldn’t they get an ACE score and an Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) check-up?

People need to know to go for help – and to know that if they go for help, they won’t be stigmatized, as they are today, but supported. We need more publicly-supported programs modeled on the Anonymous groups for healing hearts and minds.  We need those groups in every flavor, for every addiction, in every city and town. We need them to be publicly supported so that large numbers of people know that it’s ok to go for help.

We need a referral system so that people in enough pain after doing all – like Russell and me – get referred to therapy.  We need a real mental health system in which therapy has insurance which makes it feasible, not a pipe dream as it is today for 99.99% of Americans.

“General Theory of Love” also demonstrates in depth that a huge percent of therapists haven’t healed their own “hole inside me” and so are tone deaf and clueless about how to heal.  We need a serious overhaul of our therapy training programs and remedial re-education programs for therapists now in practice.

Why the big deal? Huge numbers of our population are in pain so bad they’d rather die than live with it.

Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN1  Norwood, Robin, PhD, “Women Who Love Too Much,” Pocket Books, New York, 1985

FN2  Edelman, Hope, “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss,” Da Capo Press, 2006.  See also: Harris, Maxine, PhD, “The Loss That Is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father,” Penguin Books, New York, 1996

FN3 Lewis, Thomas, MD; Amini, Fari, MD; Lannon, Richard, MD; “A General Theory of Love”, Random House, New York, 2000. Dr. Lannon interviews at: www.paulagordon.com/shows/lannon/

FN4  Herman, Judith, PhD, “Trauma and Recovery,” Basic Books, New York, 1992

FN5  Perry, Bruce, MD, “Overview of Neuro-sequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT),” www.childtrauma.org, 2010

FN6  Flores, Philip J., PhD, “Addiction as an Attachment Disorder,” Jason Aronson, Inc., 2004:  “Addiction is a disorder in self-regulation. Individuals who become dependent on addictive substances cannot regulate their emotions, self-care, self-esteem, and relationships.”

FN7  Ainsworth, Mary D.S., Blehar, M.C., et al, “Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation,” Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1978.  See also: George, C., Kaplan, N., Main, Mary, “An Adult Attachment Interview,” Unpublished MS, University of California at Berkeley, 1994

12,800 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

New Year Gratitude

Messiah_2013 045And now, the New Year’s face of trauma recovery:  I am so grateful for how wonderful I feel this year!  That’s why I wanted you to see some of my holiday pictures – so that when I tell you in mere words that “it’s worth it” to confront all this trauma by feeling it to heal it, you can see for yourself that it’s true.

My holidays kicked off with a shine on Nov. 24 when I sang Handel’s “Messiah” at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda in a full-scale replica of the White House East Ballroom.  They even handed me a 17th-century gown and said “here, wear this.”

I looked like Bo Peep searching for her lost sheep amidst the crystal chandeliers (I called the Dollar Store to see if they had any shepherd’s crooks, but they just said “Yeah we get a lot of crooks in here…”).  It was a riot… and we sang good.  DVDs to come, ask me.

Many of us, whether in trauma or just excess stress, unfortunately find the holidays to be the worst time of the year.  When the whole world is supposed to be joyous because they’re cuddling up with family, those of us who don’t have the Picture-book Perfect family can feel like failures, feel unloved, and even feel that we don’t belong to exist.  I sure did, in particular for the ten years 2002-2012, in spades.

But not this year.  It’s no exaggeration to say that 2013 was the best holiday season of my entire life.

Trauma stinks, to put it politely, and I’ve been posting some pretty awful stuff about about “as bad as it gets” with infant brain stem trauma and how the emotional pain can louse up a whole life.  I had some friends back east who in jest (usually) didn’t call me “Lousy Brousie” for nothing.

I’ve also noted that the worst of infant trauma can happen not only in poor and violent areas, but in the most wealthy and educated families.  In fact it happens in 50% of American households.

Messiah_2013 054So there are a lot of us in this together –- whether some of us know it or not.

I wanted to let you know that every step we take to walk fully through whatever trauma we may have, is so worth it.  It’s worth it, to feel all the even terrifying feelings we sometimes need to feel to heal them — because the healing can feel “as good as it gets.”

I may be clowning around now and having Thanksgiving dinner at the beach, which I did — but it was a result of a lot of hard internal work.  Doing this work results in a growing feeling of “love inside” as Dr. Henry Cloud puts it, which at times can feel as if God’s love were pouring in the windows of our soul.  Or at least of the Nixon Library, which are some pretty huge floor-to-ceiling ornate windows…

And: this year I actually had  Christmas!  It’s amazing how much of the joys of Christmas we can miss when we’re frozen in dissociation.  But now that I’m unfreezing, I get to experience the wonder of finally being alive.  Starting in December I went to so many tree lightings and caroling parties that I began to gain weight because I could finally taste the food for the first time this year.

Tustin Dance Nutcracker childrenI went to the Nutcracker Ballet with a dear friend, just at a local high school – and got 100 times more out of it than if I’d flown to New York to see the New York City Ballet’s world-famous production.

I could hardly keep myself from leaping up onto the stage.  It was a shock how fully I could hear Tchaikovsky’s music, feel it in my heart, see the children prancing around, like never before.  It feels like the joy a child feels when we just jump for the sheer joy of being alive.  Everything feels so real.  I tried to get tickets to go see it a second time but they were sold out…

Emotional Attachment

1 Kathy ALYC 12-22 Xmas 001It took deep emotional attachment from good friends and more to heal me over the last five years.  Here I am toasting one such friend at the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade on Dec. 22.

Humans can only feel safe in the presence of caring humans.  “The Mind is a dangerous place – never go in alone.”  So yes: I do mean it when I say “Don’t Try This at Home.”   And I wanted you to know that it’s all worth it.  And that you are worth it.  And yes – you can find compassionate friends who will let you attach.

Dealing with trauma has required me to set up a very broad safety net: an empathic, painstaking therapist skilled in Adult Attachment Theory; support groups modeled on the AA and other “anonymous” organizations’ principle of total acceptance and emotional support for the wounded; and close friends who were serious about staying attached to me — because they wanted to heal, too.

2 Gingerbread Crop2Keep looking until you find people who have issues of a similar severity and who also want to heal.  They’re out there, and they’re worth it.  I know; they saved my life.

A lot of these snowmen on the gingerbread house on Newport’s Balboa Island were quite frozen in dissociation when I first met them.  But over the years, as we shared our histories and helped each other grieve our real grief, we began to heal from the past, and melt our frozen hearts.  So now above on Dec. 22 we’re all enjoying Christmas!  (And yes there were real people involved, but the first rule of this kind of deep sharing is 100% confidentiality – so I can’t use their pix…)

Therapy alone won’t do it.   It requires the whole “recovery suite.”
As the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, attachment disorder, brain science and the biology of brain stem dysregulation have become understood in the last ten years, we’ve all focused on creating “preventative programs” to help babies and children now.   We’re trying to alert parents to be more attentive to their infants and to these issues.  Obviously this is necessary and mission-critical.

But I’d also like to point out: if half of today’s parents themselves, like 58% of the adult ACE Study participants, have moderate to severe brain stem developmental trauma, will working with parents on how to be better parents be enough?   Necessary, but not sufficient, as mathematics textbooks put it.

I wanted you to know that you are worth it, specifically.  You can find Recovery friends and support groups to really lean on — so that you can get to the parts of the traumatized brain where you can feel the deep stuff and really experience deep healing.

Dr. Dan Siegel calls it widening our “window of tolerance” to feel things which are repressed in dissociation.  This biologically can only be done in “dyadic consciousness,” in the presence of other compassionate human beings whom we can trust and to whom we can therefore become attached.

Otherwise the brain stem just knocks us out into dissociation and we can’t feel a thing, period.  You can’t fool your brain stem; it knows you much too well.

3 Kathy ocean 12-25 Xmas 058Don’t we need a campaign to heal the parents, too?  Not for some socio-economic brackets – but all Americans?  It sure is worth it! That’s me in the ocean at Dana Point on Christmas Day,  in 80-degree sunshine!  A New York girl’s dream come true.  (You can see the grin on my face if you click on the picture… )

In one example, scientists report that the infant brain, from conception and early cell division, must divide cells and grow based on some kind of rhythm, and for nine months it is driven to tune on a cellular level to its mother’s heart and breathing rates, among her other vitals.  “We have a pregnant employee who’s an athlete who’s resting heart rate is 40 beats/minute; she’s likely to have a very relaxed baby who likes relaxed rhythms.  And a hyper-thyroid mother whose heart rate is 95 may have a baby who finds a higher regulating rhythm,” Bruce Perry reports.

But a mother with ACE trauma herself, hysteria, or any high stress often has  “a totally irregular heart rate, breathing and other vital signs,” he notes.  “These moms end up with kids who are difficult to sooth because the mother had no rhythm consistently present for them to entrain to in utero.  After birth, they can’t find any rhythm that is soothing.”  Perry says that can easily cause developmental trauma.

Such mothers themselves, even the most determined to love their baby, require deep psychological and biological healing for their own trauma. That is often true for fathers who marry such women as well.

If a mother isn’t “attuned” inside herself, how can she truly attune to her baby?   I had so little ability to attune to a baby in my 20s and 30s that I literally “didn’t even have it in me” to have children.   “I would have thought the very idea would have been absolutely terrifying to you,” my fourth — and last! — therapist said (finally found a good one).  Without far reaching programs to heal the parents, many will remain biologically incapable of attuning to children.

It’s Adult Attachment Disorder which is the underlying cause of childhood trauma — not babies.

4 yogi tea 13116516 Kathy eyes openSo remember, all you adults out there, including you who may be in this field of endeavor because of your own childhoods or because you just can’t bear watching the inter-generational trauma being repeated over and over:

You’re Worth It.

I raise this cup of spicy home-made  Christmas Tea to you, with the most contented smile I’ve ever had on my face, to prove it.


Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series  each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

2,974 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

Excommunication Blues

#16 in my book blogs from “Don’t Try This at Home,” Chapter 3

Excommunication 1Last time, I wrote that just when I thought 2008 couldn’t get any worse, October-November 2008 with Mom in the hospice in Florida turned out to be my psychological Cambodia. It was going to get a whole lot worse.

I also noted that Adam and Eve had a Perfect Parent, but a 50% failure rate producing their kids, meaning babies damage real easily.  What if my Mom in reality was a fine (if not Perfect) parent, but I (like Eve) somehow got damaged, and had a mess in my head which made me project my own neurosis onto Mom?  Everybody loves their mom; I do, too.  I sure didn’t want to demonize my own mother.  Ouch!

Linda, my beloved little sister, I know you love Mom so and I know you won’t like this chapter. I’m looking at your photo now and I weep. Yes the one I took in your junior high acrobat leotard; even then you were hot, babe.  I love you like Life itself and I’d do anything not to hurt you – except to live another decade with these horror stories eating at me.

So the truth must come out, and I am so sorry that I could not talk it all through with you at the time, but there was just too much pain.  Today’s 2013 brain science says that the emotional pain was so intense in 2008, that my brain stem literally knocked me out like a mouse when a cat picks it up.  Forgive me, darling, that this comes so late.  I love you so.

Gulp.  Well folks, that one surprised me, too.  Gosh, being a writer certainly has its ups and downs.  Those soggy tissues on the floor all around my desk, where did they come from?  Er, back to our story…

Scholars note that Buddha, Moses and Jesus all had trouble with their family when they went home.  That’s simply because the ones to whom we are the closest, are the ones to whom we are the most vulnerable. We all need closeness and vulnerability, but that’s also where we can all get hurt most. Since nobody’s perfect, that’s where we do get hurt.  They call it the “need-fear dilemma;” we need closeness, but we fear it. [FN1]

Thinking back on what happened next in 2008, I had plenty of need and fear inside my own head. But maybe Mom did, too; she had it none too easy as a kid, as detailed in “Butt End of Evolution.”  See what you think.

It’s always hard to watch a mother die, and my Mom was very hard to watch, as I wrote last time.  But then, I was not just an observer. I was the designated pin cushion.  Mom had made no bones for decades that she pretty much didn’t want me anywhere, least of all in that hospice at the end.  And I did promise you the back story.

Hero or Villain?

Astronaut Parade 1Decades before, I’d started medical school in the Philippines and came home to New York at age 25 for a visit, where Mom feted me like a returning astronaut at family parties to honor my acceptance into that professional track.

I never had a performance problem; I graduated high school a year early with a full college scholarship and finished college six months early. It seemed natural enough to me that I was alone on the other side of the world among strangers, killing myself pulling all-nighters as med students must for years on end. But one day after my return from Manila, talking with my former college sweetheart (now my ex), it hit me that I was trying to do something I didn’t want to do.

And I can’t find a more diplomatic or more truthful way to say this: Mom always wanted me to be a doctor, and I saw that’s why I was doing it.

I saw that I couldn’t go back to Manila, and decided to return to my boyfriend in New York. “I’ve realized that I’m not doing med school for myself,” I told my parents, “but I can’t do something this serious my entire life, for someone else.”

My mother despised my ex for his political involvements; that became grounds for a sudden explosion. “You’re throwing your life away,” she said in great anger. Before I knew it, she had accused my ex of “killing my daughter” by talking me out of medical school. And yes, my 20-20 hindsight freely admits my ex had lousy politics, in as deep with one of the many whacky groups which lined the streets of New York after the Vietnam War. No mom would want to see a daughter with such potential get mixed up in that.

But that could have been discussed in the bosom of the family. I could have left U Manila and gone to work in New York while I figured out what I wanted to do or where to go to grad school.

Instead, I was booted out of the house so fast it made my guts spin. This was not simply, “you’re a quitter, no more parties.”  It felt like one minute I was John Glenn the hero riding in a parade with confetti, then awoke to find myself metamorphosed into Lee Harvey Oswald. The message was: “Go, and Never Darken My Doorway Again.”

I couldn’t think; I just wanted to die. Where was Jack Ruby when I needed him?

I had been excommunicated. There’s that odd feeling again; why does something always remind me of the Inquisition? It just keeps popping up. Perhaps I should create a new perfume line, “Eau d’Auto-da-fé ” or simply “Eau da Fe” for short (maybe have it marketed by Daffy Duck).

He’s a Bad Man

Oswald & Jack RubyIt took me another 25 years to notice the real shocker:  all concerned were distressed, yet everyone accepted Mom’s response as a fait accompli. Scratching my head in 2013, I can’t recall a debate from anyone, not from my father or any other member of my family. Now that I think of it, it never entered even my head to debate it, either.

Everyone, including me, seemed to be in silent agreement that I was in the wrong and bad, while Mom was in the right, and good. That required all to nod in endorsement, as if to the law. It was like I’d been caught in a mortal offense to the Ten Commandments.

I simply condemned myself “guilty as charged” and slunk off as if to some den of inequity. “You’re supposed to feel bad when you’re treated bad!” one therapy expert later quipped on hearing the tale, in an effort to shake me awake. “You were in a sick system so long you became numb to it,” he said, it’s technically termed “dissociation.”

Were my ex or his politics a Nuremberg crime heinous enough to merit this?  No one ever distinguished my being a med school quitter from his hated politics — not even me. It was all one huge ball of wormy guilt.

I didn’t steal from my dad or sleep with my sister’s boyfriend.  I just said, “I can’t go to medical school, I’m going to hang out with a guy you don’t like, and I may have some politics you don’t like.” Yet suddenly it was “Off with her head!”  Not until decades later did I realize it was all nuts.

No one ever said simply: “He’s a bad man, he’ll be bad for you — we love you, stay with us!”  I would have stayed with my family in a New York minute.  I was just trying to come home from the other side of the planet to find a little love for my wildly mixed-up head in a very cold world.  But then I jumped out of a certain controlled script.


Ugly Duckling 1No one said “But we want to see her!”  There was not one protest, as if they were muttering “whew, glad it’s not me.”
They didn’t even attend my wedding five years later.

Now, here I was in 2008 in Mom’s Miami hospice, where as I wrote last blog, I’d come to her room each morning and Mom would roll over and turn her face away.  She’d ask the nurses “Where’s my daughter?” with me standing there. When I’d say, “I’m right here, Mom,” she’d say, “Not you.  Where’s Linda?”

How could Mom and I have run so far off the rails?  I had plenty of time sitting in that hospice to agonize over that.  It hurt a lot.  One thing I knew:  it didn’t start when I returned from Manila at 25.

Mom had been hostile ever since I could remember, since age 4 at least, which I knew from memories predating my sister’s birth.  A few early incidents popped up out of nowhere in my first group therapy session as mentioned earlier.  But as a kid I could never fathom it or discuss it with anyone.  We just didn’t discuss such things at our house; there was too much to get done at home, work and school.  I sure wasn’t going to mortify myself by telling anyone at school.  It was a serious Ugly Duckling routine which never got to the swan part.

Another puzzle piece arrived in January 2006 when I flew in alone from Washington DC for a cameo appearance at my parents’ 50th anniversary dinner in a swank Miami bistro.  With my sister and her family in their finest, amid the champagne toasts, Mom suddenly announced that she had always resented my existence.

Fixing an eye on me across the table decked with flowers and candles, she said out of the blue and loudly, without a trace of a smile:  “I nearly died having you; you almost killed me.  You gave me an infection that put me flat on my back for weeks.  I was so sick that Grandma begged Dad not to have any more children.”

There was stunned silence at the table.  I looked into Mom’s eyes an instant in panic, but there was no way to make a connection with what I saw looking back.  To be blunt, it looked like either a very cold fish or something more dangerous.

I went blank, and made a beeline for the ladies room so no one could see me break down, collapsed in a stall in a blur of chiffon, stilettos, and tears.  My sister eventually pulled me out. Everyone acted as if nothing had happened.  Again.  Even my poor sister blanked out the entire incident, and denies to this day that anything occurred.

This is from Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in Adults, Adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.


FN1  “We have a need in our heart for love, but when it’s wounded or hurt or unavailable, something very bad happens.  We don’t just sustain need.   If my Mom dies when I’m age 7, I can’t just wait 20 years and say  ‘OK now I’ll find someone nice to love me.’  Instead, when we have unmet need or injured need, something bad develops called the need-fear dilemma.  What we need the most, we begin to fear.  If it’s needing love, then we’re uneasy around love.  If we need understanding of our weaknesses, we get very uneasy about being weak.”
—  Cloud, Henry, PhD, “Getting Love on the Inside,” Lecture, April 2002 (CD),  www.Cloud-Townsend Resources.com

“The insecure resistant ambivalent child shown in the video is experiencing what has been referred to as the need-fear dilemma; he both needs the mother for comfort, but something in his history with this mother has instilled fear, and distrust whether he will find what he needs.  The video is of the Strange Situation, developed by  psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to describe secure and insecure attachment. These two attachment patterns are vividly seen in the interaction of two mother-child pairs: http://youtu.be/DH1m_ZMO7GU
   — Gerson, John, Phd, “Understanding Secure and Insecure Attachment,” www.theravive.com/research/understanding-secure-and-insecure-attachment

6,470 total views, 0 views today

Share Button

No Tears for Dad

#9 in my ongoing book series; original post September 27, 2013

After my 27-year marriage fell apart, by late 2007 I was reduced to writing long poems for Dan the East Coast rebound affair, in a bizarre attempt to figure out how his mind worked, why he kept calling me, and how to inspire him to “get it.”

My notebooks repeated one theme for two years:  I was dead — but now I want to be alive.  I’d been left “home alone” by my ex for so many years I thought I was dead, as I said during my divorce.  I emailed friends often in the months to follow that Dan had brought a dead woman back to life.  One March 2008 poem ends: “If you someday chose to take a breath/ I’ll be there at your command/ You gave me life, I owe you life/ Call upon it if you can.”

BrousBlog11a Turtle Stayin' AliveI didn’t learn until four years later that the reptilian brain stem controls a lot of these functions, and this feeling of being dead has a technical tag: dissociation.
Whu Nhu?

But Dan’s every “come here” ended in a “go away,” so I couldn’t stay alive.  I’d been so happy to escape the marriage torture chamber, divorce, and start a fabulous new life, I just couldn’t understand why I felt so lousy. “Dan ruined California for me,” I decided, and launched into a new round of kayaking, sailing, dancing and dating on the West Coast to replace him.  Good luck in that mindset.

Periodically I’d fly back and forth across North America, making money, visiting Mr. Wrong, and going nowhere at 600 MPH.  Who needed meth, I was high as a kite on my own hyper-schedule.

After a late 2007 trip to visit Washington DC defense sector clients and Dan’s Maryland fortress, I flew back to LAX into the worst Southern California fire season of the decade.  The desert from the air showed flames and plumes of black smoke rising as far as the eye could see, as if the plane were “just taking the tram into Mordor.”  A descent into hell, literally and emotionally.

My California dream had become a nightmare.  As 2008 wore on, Dan the Anti-Christ of Anti-Attachment was eating an ever-larger hole in my soul.  I spent days near LAX writing billion-dollar proposals for radar systems and nights writing Dan doggerel, trying to fathom my obsession and work it out of my system.

But no matter how I tried to fix my present, it never hit me that all this emotional pain could be from way far back in my past.

Reality Check

Reality finally hit when my father died and I couldn’t cry.

In spring 2008 I saw an ad for a concert of my all-time favorite, Mozart’s final ”Requiem Mass,” at a community college in Huntington Beach, and moved to take back my music.  On May 15, 2008, I sang the “Requiem” with full chorus and orchestra, realizing my dream to be singing again and in sunny California with a new start.

The next morning my brother-in-law phoned from New York to say that my Dad in Florida had just had a heart attack, please catch the next plane to Miami Beach.  California?  New life?  A little joy?  Kiss the vision goodbye for the Nth time, honey.

BrousBlog11b Amadeus PosterBack in the air across the country, back to the dreary East Coast I flew, Mozart’s fearsome call of Judgment Day ringing in my ears.  Back to my “family of origin” as it is technically termed, back to my parents and my younger sister.  Back, back, back in time.

My father lay in the hospital dying.  He had an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth and could do little more than groan and wave penciled lists of things that needed doing in the general direction of my mother.  He had had a stroke and acute respiratory failure as well; his major systems had simply given out.

Dad worked long hours into the night and on Saturdays for 40 years for his family because, as the Broadway song from “Carousel” goes:  “She’s gotta be sheltered, and fed, and dressed, in the best that money can buy.”  Yet there was always something strange about his situation. When at age 4 or so I first noticed Dad, he was controlled access only.  He’d come home late, Mom would allow my sister and I each a quick hug, say “Daddy’s tired” (always the same words), seat him in a back room with dinner and the TV on, and close the door with us outside.  She’d joke, “They never knew his name was Ralph; they thought his name was Daddy’s Tired.”

BrousBlog11c Billy Bigelow SunsetIt felt as if Dad was always off into the sunset somewhere, like the movie finale of “Carousel” where Billy the Dad returns to heaven after one day on earth.  Dad would say, “I learned in a house full of women to keep the toilet seat down,” as if he did not belong.

A few Sundays a year Dad would take us to the carousel in the next town, which I awaited eagerly as my only time of any duration with him.  I had such longing to belong with the colored lights and pretty horses, and for Dad to see me and recognize me as part of that beautiful setting.  But Dad didn’t seem to notice me; he’d put me on his horse in front of him and focus on jumping for the gold ring.  The big scary outside moving horses seemed to go awfully high up when I was so little and when Dad jumped it terrified me, but he just laughed.  I wanted to hang onto Dad but he was jumping, so I hung onto the horse’s leather strap instead.

The next memory I have of Dad was in school after the Kennedy assassination, when for no reason anyone could grasp, I began crying uncontrollably and went on sobbing in my room for weeks.  Finally Dad came in and said, “That’s enough now, cut it out.”  Mom and he were displeased when I cried as a kid and that was the signal to be quiet.  It never occurred to either of us for him to ask what was really troubling me, or to hold me while I cried.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

Dad grew up in a big house with showcases of silver, plastic slipcovers on the furniture, and tennis courts.  His father was a New York City merchant who commuted to Manhattan every day by Long Island Railroad.  After the 1929 crash, Grandpa lost everything, but still went to the station every morning and sat there all day to keep up appearances.  One day the kids at school told my Dad where Grandpa was, and Dad had to go to the station and tell Grandpa “Come on, Dad, let’s go home.”  My Dad never connected this to post-war times, but when I heard the story, it hit me that appearances had always been really important in our family.

Now I realized watching Dad in the hospital, waving lists of things to do, that he was still trying to keep up appearances, to maintain some sense that he had control over events — in a situation where that is notoriously impossible.  I was reminded of the lists later when my sister Linda and I stumbled over eerily similar boxes of objects Dad had stashed at home.  Large cartons of nail clippers, endless cases of pencils, crates of bills from decades past, an empire of things he spent years trying to control.  Lynn was bemused, but I remember feeling scared and wondering why.

I haven’t mentioned Mom much, in order to let you continue to look over my shoulder and see events exactly as I did – or to be blind to them, as I mostly was.  Let’s simply say for now that another reason it was difficult to communicate with Dad was that it always seemed I couldn’t really speak to him except through Mom.  It was still pretty much controlled access.

Mom had her moments; one afternoon she held Dad’s hand and sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” until we all were in such tears that emails to the cousins reverberated across the internet. You could hear them singing along with Bing Crosby all 1,200 miles from Long Island, New York to Miami Beach, Florida that night.

But Mom wasn’t glad to see me, as usual.  I felt sad I hadn’t visited them more in later years, but Mom never seemed to want me around and I didn’t have the courage to face her.

When I arrived at the hospital Dad was visibly upset – “Kathy?!” he cried, almost in terror.  I can still hear the alarm in his voice.  It hit me that my face made him realize he must be seriously ill, if I were there all the way from California, and despite Mom’s resistance.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

BrousBlog11d Generic CarouselI spent the rest of May 2008 in what felt like a giant nation-wide United Airlines staging of “Carousel,” jetting round and around, back and forth from the hospital in Florida to Washington DC, where I had a  contract this time to work on a $2 billion proposal to restructure the national information systems at the Transportation Security Agency.

I never connected the two at the time, but in retrospect I was in such emotional pain seeing my parents in Florida, pain so severe I couldn’t even become conscious of it, that my resolve to kick the Dan habit went right out the window.

As I said when I first left home in 2006: “I was in so much pain, I just walked out on Newport Beach and proceeded directly to medicate.”  Straight from the hospital to Dan I went and for a few weeks his brand of organic chemicals numbed me up right fine.

On June 3, 2008, Dad passed away.  Back to Florida I flew.  My sister the Wall Street lawyer seemed to have the funeral service as well scripted as a prosecution.  But in fact it was Mom who literally wrote scripts for everyone but me to read.  Linda’s two sons balked at reading the scripts; they said they loved Grandpa, and wanted to speak of him in their own words.

But finally they had to agree, since Mom was distressed and everyone had to “make Mom feel better.” (Actually that had been everyone’s obligation since at least the 1960s, especially mine.)

Something in me rebelled as I saw this train coming down the track, and when Lynn asked me to start the service, I said “No, I’m the eldest, I’ll go last.” For some reason I’ve never understood, everyone accepted that as fact immediately.

My two nephews each got up and read their scripts, but then extemporized as teens will do, Lord bless ’em.  Linda’s husband spoke, then Linda read a speech she’d had me type for her the night before about the greatest Dad on earth.  “Of course I can’t type,” she said.  “I knew I’d never be a typist so I refused to take typing in high school.”  (I type 98.6 words a minute so I wasn’t sure whether that made me chopped liver but I let it go.)  At the service, Mom didn’t want to speak; she sat impassively.

No one had any idea what I was going to do, least of all me, until the last moment.  I rose and said, “Everyone else has said all the wonderful things there are to say about my Dad.  I’d like to do something for my family here.”  And then I sang; it was “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the finale from “Carousel,” a long-time family favorite.  The hundred person audience in the posh Miami Beach retirement home all cried and then, almost forgetting it was a funeral, applauded the long high note at the end.

Everyone cried, that is, except me.  I sang that whole slow sustained song acapella (no piano,  no nothing), and my voice was entirely clear.  “I never thought you’d make that high note,” my sister whispered later, “But you nailed it.  How did you do that?” I was shocked, too; I had no answer, but it came easily, and with perfect confidence.

The emotional soprano who cries whenever music moves her, at the movies, or on so many other occasions, could not find tears for her own Dad.  Actually I had tried to cry for days.  Lynn and I both remarked how strange it was.  I was worried, too.  It did not seem right, but there it was: I somehow felt nothing.

My Dad had died, and I could not cry.

This is from Chapter 2 of Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.  Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book every Friday, in which she explores her journey of recovery and shares the people and tools that have helped her along the way.

1,979 total views, no views today

Share Button

How Your Brain Works 101

#2 in my News Blog series; original post September 13, 2013

BrousBlog9a Perry head shotDr. Bruce Perry just put out his latest on “How Your Brain Works 101,” in his September 5 webinar for the National Council on Behavioral Health. Perry’s revelations at Dr. Daniel Siegel’s March 8  (2013) UCLA Conference “How People Change” hit me in the solar plexus.  Now you can hear him and download his slides, (Click here and scroll all the way down to September 2013). [FN1]

You know how your car works – don’t you want to know how your brain works? Click here for an introductory  video on how Attachment Disorder causes brain trauma  [FN2]  Click for Dr. Perry’s YouTube channel with educational videos in depth: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf4ZUgIXyxRcUNLuhimA5mA?feature=watch

I first heard of Bruce Perry in August 2010; not his name, but his substance. I was commuting to another high-pressure defense job on the 91 freeway outside Anaheim, CA, worrying about how to pour concrete at Seal Beach Naval Base.  It didn’t look to my clients, or to me, as though I had anything wrong with my high-performance business brain.

On the car stereo was a CD by psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud. “Humans are neurologically designed, physiologically designed, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively designed, to be in a relationship where you are loved,” Cloud said to my shock. “You are designed to take aspects of that relationship inside of you, and they actually become a part of who you are.  My 17-month-old came into the world with nothing in her head.  A lot of need, not a lot of words, didn’t read.  Babies are all need and they cry. Adults must calm them, and the minute we put them down, they start crying again.

“But after we do that a million times, the gap for how long they can tolerate not being held gets wider and wider. They take our love from the outside, and it becomes part of them on the inside… Love becomes actual equipment that you take in and walk around with.” [FN3]  I felt sad; I couldn’t identify.

But watch how my body reacts to the right research:

Cloud went on, “We can now do scans of the brain of older kids who were in institutions and were not held, comforted or soothed, and there are parts of the brain which are dark. There’s nothing growing in there — because nothing was planted; neurologically there’s literally no brain activity. But the kids who were held and loved, those parts of the brain are physiologically growing.”

I nearly drove off the 91 overpass at 70 MPH. It hit me in the gut the minute he said it. “Oh, S#$%”, I thought, “parts of my brain are dark!”  (Go tell that to the Marines at Seal Beach.)

It wasn’t until 2 1/2 years later when some guy named Perry put up his slides at UCLA in March 2013, that I saw the pictures. It was brain scans of two children aged 3, a normal brain in grey, and one labeled “extreme neglect,” parts of which were black. In that moment, I knew Cloud had referred to Bruce Perry’s work. [FN4]

As I’ve shown in previous posts, maybe 50% of Americans have some degree of attachment disorder, neurological areas which didn’t get Dr. Cloud’s “love on the inside.”  We don’t want to go around with parts of our brain dark.

Most Primitive  Brain Develops First

BrousBlog9c Perry Slide1 Brain 4 PartsDr. Perry says we’ve got to learn about the neuro-biological growth of the brain in order of time sequence from  conception to later development in infancy and childhood.

He calls this the Neuro-sequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT).  Dr. P’s “Four Part Brain” slide above shows the time sequence from the bottom up: first the brain stem develops (pink); then the diencephalon cerebellum (yellow); they make up our primitive reptilian “survival” brain.  Next develop the emotional limbic brain which only mammals have (green), and finally the thinking cortex (blue).

Why time sequence? Our entire big Einstein brain is an outgrowth of its most primitive part: the brain stem (the knob at the top of the spinal chord), and its spin-off, the cerebellum.

This “reptilian brain” is in the back of your head at the level of the ears. It maintains rock bottom survival such as body temperature, heart rate, sleep, and breathing – all the functions you never think about which if they didn’t happen you’d be dead. Not only reptiles have the same apparatus but so do pre-bony fish like sharks. That’s humbling: our whole brain starts with something that primitive.

“During development, the brain organizes from bottom to top, with the lower parts of the brain developing earliest,” Dr. Perry says. Reptile brain better hit the ground running at birth or infants don’t breathe; the rest of the brain can and does grow in later. “The majority of brain organization takes place in the first four years of life,” he says. “Because this is the time when the brain makes the majority of its ‘primary’ associations and core neural networks organize as a reflection of early experience, early developmental trauma and neglect have disproportionate influence on brain organization and later brain functioning.” [FN4 Op cit]

What goes wrong from “conception to 36 months” can fry our reptilian brain and put it in permanent fight-flight or freeze (dissociation shutdown). Then the entire brain can be thrown out of whack starting from its first cell divisions.

As the ACE Study has shown, this results in heart, gut, and many other chronic physical diseases throughout adult life.

“The brain is an historical organ,” Perry said.  “The NMT Core Assessment’s first step is a review of the key insults, stressors, and challenges during development. Intrauterine insults such as alcohol or perinatal care disruptions (such as an impaired inattentive primary caregiver) alter the norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine systems of the brain stem and diencephalon that are rapidly organizing. These early life disruptions result in a cascade of functional problems in brain areas these neural systems innervate.”

Think your thinking brain’s in charge? “Think” again – we’re arrogant about how much our thinking brain can do. Fact is, it’s the new kid on the block in the brain. It has a lot less influence than we imagine on the roiling instincts and feelings in the subconscious or “downstairs” brain, as Dan Siegel calls the rest of the brain below the cortex.  Siegel says the “downstairs brain” also  includes thick clusters of neurons associated with the brain stem that form around our viscera (heart, lungs, gut etc.).  Development of all that can go wrong from the hour the sperm hits the egg. It did with me.

“When a child has experienced chronic threats, the brain exists in a persisting state of fear,” Perry says. This “makes the stress response oversensitive, over-reactive, and dysfunctional due to over-utilization of brain stem-driven reactions. Such reactions become entrenched over time, and the ‘lower’ parts of the brain house maladaptive, influential, and terrifying pre-conscious memories that function as a template for the child’s feelings, thoughts, and actions.” [FN4]

“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is great if you have a developed frontal cortex – but we’re talking about a five year old kid who’s so scared to death most of the time that it’s shut down his frontal cortex ’cause he just saw his mother get shot,” Perry told his UCLA therapist audience March 8. “You’re going to do 20 sessions of CBT and expect change?  B#$$%&! (expletive)  That’s a fantasy.”  (Wild applause).

Listening to him talk, I can feel things inside me resonating, probably things that didn’t develop right in the womb, and I can feel it healing because, finally, here is compassion for my situation. It’s a remarkable experience.

When I hear Dr. Perry and his colleagues identifying these issues, it hits me in the solar plexus and the gut. I feel like someone is telling me “You’re not crazy, this actually happened deep inside you, you don’t have to conceal the pain anymore. You can be understood, you can be accepted as who you are.

“You can say exactly how you feel for the first time in your life and we are not going to run screaming from the room. We are going to accept you, because we can say scientifically that this is the way your cells developed in the environment you were in.”

Once I feel accepted in this profound way, I literally feel the problem begin to heal.  Dan Siegel reports that it’s been proven by brain scans that this feeling of acceptance and belonging produces re-growth of damaged brain tissues. It simulates the missed environment of love, acceptance and “we’re glad you’re here” which the infant was designed to experience at birth.

“Born for Love”

BrousBlog9d Perry Slide2 Attachment,StressBruce Perry and his Attachment Theory and trauma specialist colleagues like Bessel Van der Kolk, Daniel Siegel, Allan Schore, and Mary Jo Barrett, are also overturning the American Psychiatric Association (APA) apple cart by calling this “developmental trauma.”  It starts in the womb and is continuous from there, going on in the pre-conscious years.

It differs completely from incident-by-incident based trauma such as assault, rape, school violence, or combat stress, which can hit at any age. These later “PTSD” traumas have been assumed to what trauma is, yet horrible as they are, they are just not all there is.

Many (like me) take a lot of damage in wrong therapy which treats developmental trauma as if it were incident trauma. The APA’s latest “what’s my disease” bible, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5),” just out June 2013, doesn’t even recognize the existence of developmental trauma.

How to heal? Dr. Perry lays out the brain science behind Dr. Cloud’s idea of “getting love on the inside.”

“Attachment is when the baby learns by thousands of good experiences that stress is tolerable because it leads to reward opiates such as dopamine in our body, and that this pleasurable outcome is cathexsized to a person, Mom, who consistently attunes to it about this,” Perry said at UCLA. “When the baby feels distress, the attuned Mom feels distress and gets her own pleasure rewards by responding to the baby. So the infant brain weaves together the neurobiology of what interaction with another human being is, and connects it to stress relief, pleasure and safety, when this happens repeatedly. Ultimately, just seeing or hearing Mom makes you feel safe and pleasurable. Let a wounded combat soldier talk to his mom, and he’ll require 45% less pain meds.”

“Patterned, Repeated, Rhythmic Activity”

“Because the brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion, with symptoms of fear first arising in the brain stem and then moving all the way to the cortex, the first step in therapeutic success is brain stem regulation,” Perry said.  “An example of a repetitive intervention is positive, nurturing interactions with trustworthy peers, teachers, and caregivers, especially for neglected children who have not had the neural stimulation to develop the capacity to bond with others.

“Others are dance, music, or massage, especially for children whose persisting fear state is so overwhelming that they cannot improve via increased positive relationships, or even therapeutic relationships, until their brain stem is regulated by safe, predictable, repetitive sensory input.” An hour here and there of even sensitive therapy is rarely enough, he says.

“Children with relational stability and multiple positive, healthy adults invested in their lives improve; children with multiple transitions, chaotic and unpredictable family relations, and relational poverty do not improve even when provided with the best ‘evidence-based’ therapies. The healing environment is a safe, relationally-enriched environment,” he says.

“The only way you can move from these super-high anxiety states, to calmer more cognitive states, is rhythm,” Perry emphasizes.  “Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing.  You use brain stem-related somato-sensory network regulation, which make your brain accessible to relational reward and cortical thinking.”

Dr. Perry’s ChildTrauma Academy in Houston offers courses such as “Somatosensory Regulation Plan for Dysregulated Children” and “The Power of Rhythm: Music, Movement & Language.”  Somatosensory rhythmic programs at Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s Trauma Center in Boston feature yoga, drama, drum circles,  trampoline work, and more.

“If you want a person to use relational reward, or cortical thought,” he says, “they’ve got to be emotionally regulated first!  We must regulate people, before we can possibly persuade them with a cognitive argument or compel them with an emotional affect.  All our contingency-based models do nothing but merely escalate their negative arousal!”

Sound stupid, like your doctor saying “Scram and go cool off at the gym” ?  I thought so – until I tried it.  It works, big time. But what happened was so explosive, it’s another blog for another day.

The take-away is 1: Listen to Dr. Perry; figure out how your brain does work; see if anything he says resonates.  Call up the ChildTrauma Academy and get their materials and training on Somatosensory Regulation and the power of rhythm.

Or if you can’t wait, as I’ve said before, find a really empathic, loving therapist who knows trauma inside out, and bring him that Peter Levine book. [FN5]  That’s what I used to do somatosensory work before I heard of Bruce Perry.  You’ll need professional supervision when you do the exercises on the CD in the back of Levine’s book, and look out world.

Even if we’re 92, we can grow parts of our brain. Daniel Siegel did it with a 92-year-old lawyer using mindfulness practice. [FN6]


Excerpts from Kathy’s forthcoming book DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment DisorderHow I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all and related research of attachment and brain science are posted here every Friday. Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book, in which she explores her journey of recovery and shares the people and tools that have helped her along the way.


FN1  Perry, Bruce D. MD, PhD, “Helping Children Recover from Trauma,” National Council LIVE, National Council on Behavioral Health, September 5, 2013; http://www.thenationalcouncil.org/events-and-training/webinars/webinar-archive/  Scroll down to September 2013.

FN2  Bruce Perry, Daniel Siegel, et.al, “Trauma, Brain & Relationship: Helping Children Heal,” (25 Minutes) www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYyEEMlMMb0 – an introductory video on Attachment Disorder. A new understanding of how trauma effects the development of the mind-body system, and how it affects children’s behaviors and social relationships. Copies at www.postinstitute.com/dvds.

FN3  Cloud, Henry, PhD, “Getting Love on the Inside,” Lecture, April 2002 (CD), Mariner’s Church, Newport Beach CA, www.Cloud-Townsend Resources.com, [Coauthor with Townsend, John, PhD, of “Boundaries,” Zondervan, 2004]

FN4  Perry, Bruce, MD, PhD, “Born for Love: The Effects of Empathy on the Developing Brain,” Annual Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference “How People Change: Relationship & Neuroplasticity in Psychotherapy,” UCLA, Los Angeles, March 8, 2013 (unpublished).
Dr. Perry’s latest research and key slides (otherwise hard to obtain)  are in his National Council speech in FN1 above.
Key videos, articles on Interventions, Trauma, Brain Development/Neuroscience, etc. are at: https://childtrauma.org/cta-library/
“The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics” by Perry, B.D. and Hambrick, E. (2008)  is  at: http://childtrauma.org/nmt-model/references/

FN5  Levine, Peter A., PhD, “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body,” Sounds True, Inc.,  Boulder CO, 2005; ISBN 1-159179-247-9

FN6  Siegel, Daniel J., MD, “How Mindfulness Can Change the Wiring of Our Brains,” National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, www.nicabm.com,  March 2011.  Check for the passage on a 92 year old lawyer code-named “Stewart.”

20,274 total views, 0 views today

Share Button