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The Nervous System and Self-Regulation

We all experience adverse events in our lives, and the ultimate result may be fear and a constricted approach to life. We now know a great deal from recent decades of research on the brain, and how this research may be of direct and practical benefit, what is called “practical neuroscience” or “self-directed neuroplasticity” (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Challenging, and certainly traumatic, events leave enduring effects on the nervous system that we know may be overcome. For example, you may have had experiences of teasing or bullying, a later car accident, and perhaps a medical condition. The “trauma” of these experiences is in their residual effects on your nervous system. An analogy I like is that of a beaker becoming increasingly full with each succeeding negative event, perhaps eventually reaching a point where the beaker is almost full and hence there is little room for resiliency in the face of any more challenging life events.

The human brain is truly an amazing organ, and the concept of the “triune” brain is helpful. The first part of the brain to develop from an evolutionary point of view is sometimes referred to as the “reptilian” part of the brain, responsible for sensorimotor processing (Ogden et al., 2006). The next part is the limbic system, responsible for dealing with emotional information, and lastly there is our neocortex, responsible for higher level cognitive activities. Negative events over time may result in the limbic or emotional system running the show, despite the person’s best attempts to control their symptoms using their cortex or solely through cognitive strategies. That is why sometimes talking “about” problems alone may be of limited benefit.

The residual effects of negative life events tend to show up as activation in the nervous system. This activation is noticeable in the body when you begin to speak about these events. For example, this will be apparent both verbally and nonverbally, and you may feel as if you are “back there” at the time of the event and even reliving it. However, I have learned that these events need to be renegotiated rather than relived. In part, a somatic approach to therapy, using the body and sensation, may enable the discharge of this activation. This process occurs in the present moment in therapy, and includes the use of mindfulness. Mindfulness involves “the skillful use of attention, the doorway to taking in good experiences” (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). This way of working in therapy may allow the individual to optimally lay down new neurological pathways, pathways which are healthier than those which have caused difficulties.

Dr. Rick Hanson, a co-author of “Buddha’s Brain” (see “Favourites” in this website), has a concept I like a lot that he refers to as “Taking in the Good”. There is evidence that we as humans have developed a “negativity bias”, that is, a persisting tendency to see things in a negative manner. I believe that optimal mental health involves not only the absence of depression, anxiety and worry, but also the presence of joy and happiness. Developing the capacity to take in the good is an example of laying down a new pathway (or developing it further) and may well be an excellent example of the new practical neuroscience.