Have you ever had the (further) infuriating experience of dealing with an intense experience and someone has told you “You just need to calm down”, as if ‘calming down’ were some button to be pushed? Many of our clients, and us as people, often find difficulty in regulating intense emotions. In the moment we need them, our breathing exercises fail us, and our relaxation techniques are forgotten. Why are we able to perhaps regulate and relax in session, but seemingly struggle with this in our day-to-day lives?
Of course, session is a safe space, skillfully guided by a professional who is there to help ground us – a lightning rod if you will. This, however, is only half the story. The rest lies in practice and cueing. When introducing a technique such as deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation, I always do so by saying something along the lines of “This exercise works something like a muscle. If I wanted to run a marathon, I would need to practice running every day, and gradually work my way up. In that same way, you’ll need to practice these when you’re calm so that they can be useful to you later. If you do not practice them, its likely that you’ll either forget to use it, or it won’t work particularly well.”
So, first, why should techniques such as these be practiced? Simply put, the answer is neuroplasticity – the concept that our brains are able to change structure and neuronal connections over time. We regulate our emotions through the use the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – our rational brain. In particular, the medial PFC (mPFC) is indicated in monitoring the body’s sensations, thoughts, and interpreted emotions. Thanks to fMRI technology, we also know that broadly speaking, mindfulness techniques engage this part of our brain. Through practice and over time, we become more able to recognize when we’re becoming enmeshed and identifying with thoughts or emotions and move towards a state of self-monitoring and objectivity. As an individual enters a crisis however, the more modern and rational areas of the brain ‘go offline’ and have decreased blood flow until the individual is overwhelmed with emotion and placed in a brain state primed for fight, flight, or freeze.
This is where cueing comes in. The sooner an individual is able to become aware that they’re entering into this process and begin consciously using mindfulness techniques, and thereby the mPFC, the greater their ability to maintain engagement of the rational brain. I often find that EMDR is quite helpful in helping people with cueing. EMDR speaks about ‘neural networks’ as essentially pathways of associated content and posits that the use of bilateral stimulation is a sort of ‘way in’ to these networks. Because of this, when developing a resource with client, such as calmness or courage, we 1) spend time paying explicit attention to the thoughts and body sensations associated with it 2) develop a cue word and 3) imagine a scenario when they would need the resource and cue word and to pay attention for the shift in body sensations and thoughts. By doing so, we provide a word that is associated with this state as well as increase the discriminatory ability between the resourced and disturbed states – similar to progressive muscle relaxation’s ability to help people learn what it feels like to be relaxed by juxtaposing tension with relaxation. Those individuals who I use EMDR with to install a resource consistently report that they are using their skills more often out of session than those who are not. I believe this to be because of the integration of the skill into their neural network through a cue word and challenge scenario – as much of a hypothesis rooted in folk psychology that is.
Overall, the use of mindfulness skills is something that can be applied to and helpful for many problems encountered in the clinic. They help us consciously rewire and adapt our brains so that they’re able to tolerate greater intensity of emotions without becoming overwhelmed and help us identify when we are at greater risk for doing so. Let me say that first part again – practicing mindfulness helps us consciously rewire and adapt our own brains. If that is not empowering and downright cool, I don’t know what is.
Most of the information here comes from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, Anxious, by Joseph LeDoux, or EMDR, 2nd ed., by Francine Shapiro. I’m also happy to provide citations for studies which discuss the benefits of meditation and how it shapes the brain, just ask.
Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice.