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  • Lemuel Tan

Triune Brain in Psychotherapy: Integration (Part 2)

Let us recap. We know about:

1) Three parts of the brain: Survival Brain, Emotional Brain and Thinking Brain,

2) There is developmental and communication sequence that occurs between parts of the brain,

3) Neuroplasticity,

4) How neurological pathways get laid,

5) How neurological pathways become stronger and weaker.

But what does this all mean and how does it affect one’s brain and mental health?

We know that a fully functioning healthy brain has all three parts integrated. This means no single part of the brain hijacks or dominates the whole brain. Integration is key here. Imagine if you were only dominated by your Thinking Brain without the access to the Emotional Brain or Survival Brain when a lion suddenly appears. One would naturally think that this would be a great idea as I can now think my way out of a highly stressful problem! However, without the function of the Survival Brain or the Emotional Brain, your success of survival would be much lower. In a perfect world, you would want all three parts of your brain to be integrated.

  • Survival Brain - The body is sent information to increase the generation of adrenaline, oxygen, blood, etc. This enables you to be prepared for what happens next.

  • Emotional Brain – The Amygdala within the Emotional Brain notices the threat and quickly selects the best survival response to the situation, for example: I will run quickly as far away as I can.

  • Thinking Brain – The individual thinks about alternate solutions, for example: The lion actually looks more scared than hungry, I should not make any sudden move and should just lay low and hide myself instead of running and triggering the lion to attack me.

Unfortunately, when a stressful situation occurs, it is not the Thinking Brain that gets activated first (Recap- this is due to the Thinking Brain being developed last and the Survival and Emotional brain being developed earlier) but the Survival Brain and Emotional Brain working together to keep everybody safe. Thus to be truly okay, we need to send the message of safety to the Emotional Brain and Survival Brain.

However, what happens when you have on going and repeated traumas or stressful events such as domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, war & terrorism, on-going bullying, etc.? The brain starts to lay down multiple neurological pathways making the connection between the Emotional and Survival Brain stronger, resulting in a weaker neurological pathway between the Thinking Brain and the Emotional and Survival Brain. This is why even when an individual is safe, they can still feel anxious and unsafe. It can be seen as a paradox but it actually makes sense from a Triune Brain Theory. You are not going crazy it is just the brain being protective. Your Survival and Emotional brain does not want you to be in danger.

Fun fact - The Hippocampus (a part of the brain within the Emotional Brain) is supposedly used for making new memories, storing of memories and retrieving of memories. The hippocampus reduces in its efficiency when there is danger. This makes it hard for the Thinking Brain to retrieve evidence later that the danger is really over.

This new understanding of how the brain works, informs clinicians that when a client feels highly anxious, stuck, dissociated (zone-out), rejected and experiences flash backs, etc. it is the Survival and Emotional Brain being stuck. The ultimate goal in therapy will be to help you move and reconnect your whole brain – making the three parts as one unified whole brain. In therapy, you will learn skills to help calm the Survival Brain and Emotional Brain, develop emotional awareness within certain situations to gain understanding of the reactions, and learn skills to develop the Thinking Brain instead of purely responding to the Survival and Emotional Brain.

By focusing on how the brain works, we are no longer working on individual symptoms such as depression, anxiety, disassociation, paranoia, low motivation, etc. We also now know that anxiety is no longer the problem, if anything, the anxiety is a response to keep you safe. Instead of fighting anxiety (which takes up a lot more energy) we can now learn how to understand it and work with your brain to make you feel safer, resulting in less anxiety. Lastly, through the hope of neuroplasticity, we know that new neurological pathways of safety, connection and belongingness can be achieved within the brain. When this occurs, the individual will start feeling better within themselves.

Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.

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