How Cross Brain Connections Literally Saved My Life!

In this blog, I will discuss how a healthy brain develops and how trauma impacts this process by localizing neural connections in the lower regions of the brain, the part concerned with survival.  I will share ways we can capitalize on the brain’s neuroplasticity and capacity to heal with strategies to increase cross brain connectivity, ending with an example of this from my own personal experience of being assaulted on two different occasions.  

There is a great deal of discussion in Trauma-Informed Care about cross brain connections, neural pathways that connect throughout the different areas of the brain, leading to a greater capacity for self-regulation and smooth emotional state shifting in response to environmental cues.  Brain development begins in utero, developing sequentially from the bottom to the top and from the inside out in response to sensory input.  The first part of the brain to develop is the brainstem, which is responsible for regulating autonomic functions like heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature, sleep, and appetite.  We generally do not have to think about these functions unless something goes wrong with them (during an asthma or heart attack, for example).  The brainstem, which as its name suggests, is at the base of the brain, is responsible for basic survival and is where our fight, flight and freeze responses originate in response to a trauma trigger.

The next region of the brain to develop is the diencephalon, which regulates motor control.  (When the freeze response is triggered by the brainstem it indicates that the diencephalon, as well as all of the regions of the brain above it, have essentially gone “offline”). Following that is the limbic system, which regulates our emotions and makes us capable of attachment and relational connection.  The last part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which allows for abstract and concrete thought, impulse control, planning and other aspects of executive functioning.  The neocortex may not be fully developed and functional until well into a person’s second decade of life.

Trauma can be defined as input that is arrhythmic and unpredictable.  If a pregnancy is unwanted, or the mother is in a chaotic environment due to poverty and domestic violence, or she struggles with a mental disorder or uses drugs, for example, the fetus is exposed to a barrage of arrhythmic sensory input in the womb.  The mother’s heart-rate may be irregular, the cadence of her voice may be harsh or distressed, and her body may be secreting stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that acid washes the womb for nine months.  The part of the brain that receives the most sensory input will be the most well developed, as the neurons flock there in response to continuous activation.  A baby experiencing intra-uterine trauma of any sort will be born prepared for survival, with most of his or her neurons clustered in the lower regions of the brain.  A baby whose gestation was full of rhythmic, predictable sensory input from his mother’s well-regulated heartbeat, calm voice, and soothing chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, will be born with up to fifty percent of his neurons having migrated to the neocortex, ready for language and learning. Intra-uterine trauma primes the baby’s brain to form local connections in the lower regions of the brain in anticipation of being born into a chaotic, unpredictable environment.  The foundation for future development is compromised, and any subsequent trauma layers on top of this shaky substrate to create a brain muscled up for survival and reactivity, with few cross brain connections allowing for a regulated, integrated response to environmental or relational stimuli.

Dr. Bruce Perry points out that trauma interferes with what he terms smooth “state shifting,” referring to the ability of the brain to communicate between all of its regions to come up with the best response to deal with the situation at hand. Healthy brain development allows a person to accurately interpret input and respond appropriately based on what is actually happening in the present.  In the case of a car careening into your lane of traffic, the amygdala sounds the alarm in the limbic system, the diencephalon kicks in and prompts you to quickly maneuver out of the way, and the brainstem briefly shuts down unnecessary functions like digestion that would divert energy away from dealing with the crisis.  The neocortex, which would unnecessarily delay the response time, essentially goes offline.  Whether the car barreling towards you is a Mercedes or a Chevrolet is completely irrelevant to your survival.  Determining the color, make or model of the vehicle occupies precious time and attention that keeps you in harm’s way longer than necessary and compromises your ability to keep yourself safe.  When cross-brain connections are absent, and the different regions of the brain lack neural pathways to communicate efficiently, the array of responses a person has is limited.  A traumatized individual might get stuck in his brainstem, lose access to his diencephalon, freeze, and be unable to turn the steering wheel, incurring a collision with the oncoming car.

This is essentially what happened to me when I was assaulted in my early 20’s in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  I was using a public restroom when a man who apparently had been hiding in the stall next to mine burst under the dividing wall and attacked me.  I completely froze.  I could not move, cry out, or think of how to defend myself.  I never reported the assault or pursued any kind of help afterward.  I simply left it buried in my brainstem and used my already active eating disorder and dissociative pathways to cope. When I unexpectedly became pregnant with my first child three years later, I realized my unhealthy patterns were going to affect my baby in damaging ways.  Facing the huge responsibility of carrying and then caring for a child provided the incentive I needed to pursue healing in so many areas of my life.  Although I worked hard on my recovery, my very stubborn pathways for dissociating from strong emotions and avoiding what I perceived to be the dangers of intimacy remained strong.

When I discovered Natural Lifemanship, I knew these principles of relational connection and partnership were the missing pieces to my healing puzzle.  I was initially dismayed to find how much I struggled to experience connection in the round pen with the horses, but as I kept practicing asking for attachment and detachment, I found over time that I was starting to feel my emotions and body sensations more consistently and accurately, both with horses and with people.  Through both ground (Relationship Logic) and mounted work (Rhythmic Riding), I strengthened the cross brain connections necessary to stay regulated and grounded without checking out in stressful situations.  My sense of peace and confidence and ability to stay present and connected to myself continued to grow.

Last year all of this was put to the test when I was out running in my neighborhood early in the morning.  I heard footsteps behind me on a narrow stretch of sidewalk bordered by tall hedges and a railing on either side and turned sideways, thinking another runner wanted to pass me.  Instead, he grabbed me by the shoulders, muttered the word “sorry” and threw me to the ground.  My brain immediately went into gear. Just the night before I had shared a public service announcement from the Austin Police Department with my running group concerning a sexual predator who had been assaulting female runners.  I could literally see the list of suggestions in my mind and began sorting through them.  “Make noise,” my brain said, and I started screaming as loud as I could.  My assailant covered my mouth with his hand. “Fight back,” my brain commanded, and I shook one of my arms free and tried to push him off.  As he tightened his grip, I remembered, “Strike where he is most vulnerable,” so I started reaching towards his groin area as best as I could.  His eyes widened in surprise and he suddenly let go of me, slamming my head into the pavement. I don’t know how long I lost consciousness, but as I came to, I heard a voice shouting, “Get up!  Get up!  You have to get up NOW!”  I realized the voice was my own; it was my brain, telling me I needed to mobilize in case he came back.  I was able to get up and wobble up the hill until I met another runner who took me to her house and called 911.

I reported this assault.  I went to the emergency room, made a statement to the police, and described the suspect to a forensic artist who captured his likeness quite accurately.  I engaged in therapy, and spent hours in the round pen with horses, crying, connecting, and healing. I shared my experience with my running group and put together a tip sheet for runner safety, which I shared with other running groups in the area.  I attended a self-defense class.  Despite the temptation to revert to old patterns of dissociating from my fear and pain, I practiced feeling all the emotions in the aftermath of this trauma, letting myself weep when the detective called to say my suspect’s DNA was found on another victim.  I gave myself permission to be scared, sad, and also proud.  Proud that I had done the hard work to develop the cross brain connections that allowed me to fight back instead of freezing during my second assault.  During my therapy for this attack, I was able to process my first one as well.

Cross brain connections are essential for flexible thinking and appropriate responses. Practicing mindfulness and grounding skills on a regular basis allows these neural pathways to develop and strengthen in a brain compromised by arrhythmic, unpredictable input.  Research continues to highlight the neuroplasticity of the brain in response to rhythmic sensory input that allows it to heal and integrate following trauma. Expanding local connections into cross brain connections enhances our ability to experience emotional regulation so that we can build healthier, more satisfying relationships with ourselves and with others.

How does one build or repair cross brain connections?

A daily practice of mindfulness (meditation, yoga, or centering prayer, for example) has been shown to improve brain connection and functioning.  Exposure to reparative or corrective relational experiences also contributes to building neural pathways from the lower to the upper regions of the brain.  Trauma victims often repeat dysfunctional patterns in the relationship due to compromised neural connections in the brain, reinforcing their trauma pathways. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy involves partnering with a horse to provide opportunities for new pathways to form a healthy relationship is built between horse and human under the guidance of a therapist and equine specialist. Clients learn how to build and sustain healthier relationship patterns as their brains literally re-wire through the experiential component of the therapeutic work with the horses. Through a combination of ground and mounted work, a person can learn self-regulation skills, positive coping resources, and begin to heal from their trauma.

What are cross brain connections good for?  At some point, they just might save your life.

For more information, check out the following website:  www.naturallifemanship.com 

*Dr. Daniel Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness is an excellent resource for developing such a practice, as is St. Michael’s Hospital Awareness Stabilization Training.