I’ve long been fascinated by how we truly heal from the emotional scars we may carry. Given my own trauma history, having personally known the private pain of rape, eating disorders and depression, a lot of my life energy has gone into learning how to heal and move beyond some of the hurts that seemed to define me.
My discoveries and love of this topic later shaped my professional role as a woman-centered coach. I immersed myself in psychology and dove into my spirituality, wondering how do we humans actually heal from challenging early memories or experiences that may still influence our lives today?
Early on in my formative years of training in psychology, I was taught that by getting in touch with our emotions, feeling the anger or grief or other uncomfortable emotions, this would release them and that this somehow would be enough.
I embraced this principle wholeheartedly. Emoting was always easy for me and if you knew me in the early 2000’s, you’d know I was the queen of catharsis!
Yet, I noticed that no matter how much I yelled or screamed or vented, the same feelings were still there waiting for me down the road, waiting to bubble up. Plus, it often felt like I was spinning in a familiar groove of hurt feelings, going nowhere except for flooding my system with stress hormones.
It wasn’t until I turned my focus to studying the brain and the nervous system, in which it started to make sense. It was like a missing puzzle piece that I had been looking for, the understanding of how we humans are designed to heal, by working in cooperation with how our brain is organized.
What relational neuroscience teaches us is that there are actually TWO ingredients necessary to experience and sustain deep embodied healing. These two elements can actually rearrange the storage units in our brain (neural nets) that hold the imprint of the painful memory, experience or trigger. Memory reconsolidation is the fancy name for this process.
In order for memories and hurt feelings to truly change, two conditions are necessary:
You know, the tight throat when you think of how your boyfriend just yelled at you or the anxious belly when you feel that you were left out of something or the hot thrum of anger in your chest when a driver cuts you off?
The emotion needs to feel alive along with the accompanying physical sensations. This tells us the neural net is awakened through the triggering experience and it is now open to be rewired.
(This is where the bulk of old-school therapy and/or personal development work, breath work, etc often focuses on – stirring up the trigger to move into catharsis. However, it’s only part of the healing equation.)
This alone is not enough and does not initiate deep, lasting change.
So for example, I’m sitting with my coach and sharing something that’s really troubling for me. I can feel my body activated, I feel angry and my jaw is clenched, however as long as we are still connected and I feel it, and I sense how compassion is welling up in her, and I really get that she is with me, not trying to change me or distracted by something else, her presence alone allows my subcortical brain to receive the healing energy of safety or protection that she is offering me.
This helps to reshape my experience, when the neural net is open (I’m triggered), and it can now take in new information (compassion). This actually allows my brain to change. It’s called a disconfirming experience for those of you who love terminology like me.
It’s the coming together of these two things that allows these storage units of memory (neural nets) to change.
This trigger now becomes a healing experience that repairs the rupture that occurred early on, when the early hurt or trauma occurred, no matter how much time has passed and restores our innate sense of well-being. Often this response of companionship, love or compassion may be the very thing that we needed early on, but didn’t get.
Having both the emotional charge present in our bodies at the same time we are taking in love, compassion and caring is what science shows us unlocks old experiences so we can truly heal from the past.
Isn’t this just gorgeous? Our bodies and psyches are amazing. We have everything we need to heal, transform and grow, built into our brain and our heart which come alive in our connection with another.
My intention is to help ground/anchor/dispel spiritual and psychological ideals of transformation into an accessible framework which honors how our brain and body works, which allows us to actually relax, rewire and reconnect with our loving essence. Please feel free to share this with someone you know that could benefit from this understanding.