Restoring the Brain-Body Connection: How Interpersonal Neurobiology Helps Us Heal

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The therapeutic relationship refers to the close and consistent communication that builds an alliance between you and your psychotherapist. This professional rapport is essential to build understanding and trust; work effectively and efficiently on your mental health concerns; and, as a result, gain more power to achieve significant measurable results. While this professional bond is feasible in lighter, solution-focused areas of mental health counselling, but it takes more time and effort to feel safe and comfortable with others for clients who’ve experienced serious traumatization.

We don’t heal in isolation, but in community.
S. Kelley Harrell, Gift of the Dreamtime

When you think about trauma and traumatic experiences you might imagine a soldier suffering during a war zone, a partner seeking secure housing after experiencing physical abuse, or sexualized violence. While these events may certainly include traumatization, trauma is a broader body-centred term. Past harm may create trauma in the body. The past harm may refer to anything that overwhelms your central nervous system and changes the way that you take in the world.

Trauma in the body is a symptom of past harm. Almost every day it may cause you to feel agitated, angry, annoyed, or panicked when faced with present-day experiences that cause you to recall past harm. It may exacerbate, low mood, a sense of worry, or suicidal thinking. If you’ve read about Stephen Porges, PhD’s Polyvagal Theory, trauma often provokes your acute stress response of fight, flight, freeze, or submit and can leave a lasting impression of physical and psychological symptoms or even the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At the same time, it may become increasingly difficult to trust others, especially those who say they want to help you. It takes care to address the common assumption that those who are close to you=the threat of harm.

Why is it essential to have a healthy working relationship in therapy? This important question can be answered through interpersonal neurobiology. By understanding the professional bond between us, we become better equipped to collaborate in ways that lessen the daily impacts of past harm and, eventually, lessen your suffering. Developed by Dan Siegel, MD. with Allan Schore, PhD and Louis Cozolino, PhD, interpersonal neurobiology is a multidisciplinary approach that leverages neuroplasticity to heal the impact of past harm.

The human brain has the capacity to grow and change throughout our lives with the continual development of new neurons and the formation of new neuronal pathways. This means that even the most deep-seated psychological wounds can be healed. By tapping into the brain’s neuroplasticity, interpersonal neurobiology can restructure a person’s mind to heal from the pernicious effects of trauma and support a healthier and more balanced life.

Defining the Mind

The theory of interpersonal neurobiology hinges on the definition of the mind. The mind is a highly advanced network of neural firings, but it’s also a result of your relationships, beginning with your primary caregiver at infancy and extending to the plethora of interpersonal relationships you maintain today. According to Dr. Siegel, the mind is more than an individual driver of thought, creativity, and experience. More broadly, it is a self-organizing system that manages the flow of energy and information within ourselves and between ourselves and others.

In free environments, self-organizing systems, like the mind, tend to move towards harmony. Yet, when you’re threatened in some way blockages can arise in your mental processes which, in turn, can hinder your ability to flourish and thrive. In fact, the neural pathways of social pain run so deep that they are coded in a similar way to those of physical pain. This can wreak havoc on your relationships and leave you feeling isolated, anxious, fearful, abandoned, dissatisfied, and distrustful. Yet, because your mind is not static, you can also find healing through relationships, which have the potential to rewire your circuitry and promote harmony and wellbeing.

For full emotional communication, one person needs to allow [their] state of mind to be influenced by that of the other.
–Dan Siegel, MD, The Developing Mind

What Does integration Have to do With it?

Integration is at the heart of mental wellness and a central process in interpersonal neurobiology. Dr. Siegel defines integration as the linking of differentiated parts into a functional whole. There are 9 domains of integration including, consciousness, bilateral, vertical, memory, narrative, state, interpersonal, temporal, and identity.

Imagine Lions Gate Chorus singing in perfect harmony. Each singer is unique and, yet, in synch. The capella chorus is creating a unified whole. In other words, an integrated system is harmonious, flexible, connected, and engaged.

A healthy mind promotes integration within itself and between itself and others. Like the choir, this includes recognizing your experience as unique while also grasping your interconnectedness to the whole. It involves compassion, or the capacity to feel your own, as well as other people’s pain, and skillfully act to reduce suffering and promote flourishing in the world.

Trauma disrupts our integrative capacities and renders the mind much less flexible. This then damages our mental health, relational capacity, and general welfare.

Relationships as Medicine

For better or for worse, all relationships change the brain, particularly those that are most intimate. The interpersonal part of interpersonal neurobiology focuses on the healing that occurs between people, including the therapist and the client.

Humans are wired to connect, and our interactions impact what happens within our individual brains. This is the neurobiology part.

Psychotherapy is a powerful stage for the use of interpersonal neurobiology in the healing of trauma. Research shows that the relationship between the therapist and client is fundamental to the success of psychotherapy and that it can also face specific challenges for clients managing the sequelae of trauma.

Therapists who model compassionate, empathetic, and emotionally safe relationships can engender a neurobiological shift within their clients to relieve emotional distress and promote healing.

Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
—Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

The Power of a Trauma Narrative

The co-development of a meaningful trauma narrative may be key in an interpersonal neurobiological approach to treating trauma. Narrative integration, or the linear telling of a traumatic experience, allows your logical left hemisphere to integrate with your emotional right hemisphere.

Trauma stories also allow for the thawing of frozen traumatic memories and a transformation of a person’s inner narrative towards one that is more freeing. Speaking the unspeakable in a supportive therapeutic environment can also allow a person to address invisible shackles of shame and fear.

Narrative development also promotes temporal integration by recognizing previous trauma as existing in the past so that a person can live fully in the present moment. That was then, but I am safe now. Using interpersonal neurobiology, the therapist must offer a container for the client to slowly and steadily access traumatic memories without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Sensorimotor psychotherapy can create this container by promoting mind and body integration and holding together all that got fragmented by the trauma. Mindfulness, grounding exercises, and awareness of emotional and physical responses allow for self-regulation and the development of a deep sense of safety, not only cognitively, but also in the body.

Mindful Healing

In interpersonal neurobiology, part of the therapeutic process involves becoming aware of how trauma and distress find life in the body.

Most people are not able to access all of their suffering or pain in their memories. Trauma can be passed down through generations and can emerge during your time in utero and early childhood. While you may not remember trauma in your conscious mind, your body does remember and expresses it through your temperament, physical, and psychological experiences.

Mindfulness-based practices and meditation awaken the mind to the wisdom of the body and promote neuroplasticity. Even 10 minutes of mindfulness practices each day can promote a modification of your inner world. Mindfulness also supports integration by nurturing a present-moment, sensory awareness that allows for flexibility, adaptability, and possibility.

Interpersonal Neurobiology in a Nutshell

The human brain is malleable which means that there is potential for healing in even the deepest and most relentless suffering. This can be done through practices that promote harmonization and unification, or the sense that you are a unique human being who is inextricably connected both body and mind as well as to a broad relational network.

Dan Siegel, MD writes: “Our mental lives are profoundly relational. The interactions we have with one another shape our mental world. Yet as any neuroscientist will tell you, the mind is shaped by the firing patterns in the brain. And so how can we reconcile this tension―that the mind is both embodied and relational? Interpersonal Neurobiology is a way of thinking across this apparent conceptual divide.”

To read about interpersonal neurobiology, check out The Mindful Brain by Dan Siegel, MD. If you have any questions, concerns, or wish to explore this in our work together, let’s talk.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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