Relational Trauma and Right Brain Development

relational attachment

Attachment theory is a psychological model that works to describe the dynamics of both long-term and and short-term interpersonal relationships. This theory, first developed by John Bowlby (British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst), describes only one facet of human relationships – how individuals respond within relationships when they are hurt, threatened, or separated from their loved ones. In essence, Bowlby’s attachment theory describes the significance of the first relationship – usually between an infant and his or her mother – and how this very first relationship will have an enduring impact on all later stages of human development. At its very core, attachment theory concerns how the mother helps the infant regulate emotion. These emotion-based attachment communications between a mother and her child are crucial, seeing as they directly affect the development of the brain.

Right Brain Development

The right brain develops earlier in life than the left brain. The right brain is highly involved in the regulation of emotion and arousal states, as well as empathy and creativity. It is the job of the right brain to process the social and emotional information that we receive via nonverbal communication. The healthy emotional development of the infant quite literally depends on the right-brain to right-brain communication he has with his mother.

The actual organization of the infant’s right brain will move from simple to complex as he undergoes these emotionally intimate and vital social interactions. As it so turns out, the right brain is far more connected to the physical body than the later-developing left brain. Therefore, the brain-mind-body connections, including those linked directly to the immune system, are also affected. If an infant experiences insecure attachment relationships early on in life, both his emotional and physical health will be affected later on in life.

The right brain functions that are organized during the first few months of life will continue to operate over the course of the lifetime. During this crucial developmental period, the infant will have powerful and inevitable emotional needs. He will need to feel safe and secure in his environment, he will need to feel understood and supported, and he will need to expand his emotional range while learning to cope with a variety of feelings. When these needs are being met, secure attachment is being fostered, and the road is being paved for a lifetime of healthy emotional regulation and general emotional wellbeing – which, in turn, is crucial to physical wellbeing.

Evidence in Epigenetics

Over the course of the past three decades, there has been much significant progress in the realm of developmental neuroscience. The dynamic relationship between genes and social experience is now clearly recognized and understood – as is the impact of this relationship on brain development and behavior. The impact that the early environment has on the genome is now proven – and this is called epigenetics. Essentially, it has been confirmed that the brain needs more than genes to grow and evolve. It needs social experience, and emotional nurturing. The brain doubles in size during the first year of life; during this stage of growth, the brain possesses the most plasticity. This means, of course, that the first year of life is a critical period of development, during which an interruption of healthy attachment processes may have life-long effects.

It is now clear that nearly every significant and diagnosable psychiatric disorder can be traced back to a disruption of early developmental processes. For this reason, it is absolutely critical that the early stages of significant disorders and identified and examined. If the earliest signs of developmental disruption can be successfully detected, treating the disorder will be made extensively more effective. This is why we at Next Chapter put such a heavy emphasis on healing the inner child through intensive therapeutic processes such as psychodrama, breath work, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. If we are able to trace persistent issues back to the initial relational trauma (often insecure attachment), we will be able to heal the emotional wounds of the patient by addressing needs that were never before met, and by instilling entirely new ways of coping and self-regulating.

Self-Regulation

There are two main principles that govern every well-developed system of self-regulation. Firstly, it is stable and resilient. Secondly, it is capable of change if the context so requires. In secure attachment relationships, the infant will develop a sort of emotional flexibility. According to the circumstance or situation, the emotions of the infant will fluctuate in a healthy and appropriate way. It is important to note that there are two major forms of self-regulation: interactive regulation and auto-regulation. When we employ interactive regulation, we look to others for comfort and support. We openly share our feelings in exchange for emotional reinforcement. Because we are actively choosing to seek help from an outside source, this still qualifies as self-regulation. Auto-regulation, on the other hand, refers to self-soothing. We use our own resources and teach ourselves methods of soothing that do not require interaction with another human being. It is important that the developing child is able to shift back and forth between interactive regulation and auto-regulation. This flexibility is a good indication of secure and healthy attachment.

It is absolutely essential for the infant to communicate emotion to the mother, and for the mother to regulate this emotion, in order for self-regulation to adequately develop. The mother will regulate positive states, such as joy and excitement, as well as negative states, such as depression and anxiety, through her calming and soothing methods of nonverbal communication. These interactive regulations of the emotional state of the infant are found at the very core of attachment, for the mother is not only regulating the behavior of her infant – she is regulating his internal state of emotional wellbeing. These interactions will shape the development of the right brain, and in doing so, pave the way for self-regulation later on life, as well as interactions in all future relationships.

Healing the Right Brain

The brain does grow the most during infancy, but it certainly continues to grow and develop in adulthood. While the right brain is shaped early on in life, its ongoing plasticity allows for major changes in self-regulation, interpersonal interaction, and coping mechanisms later on in life. Lacking secure attachment early on in life may lead to a variety of significant disorders, but it does not mean that the individual is incapable of healing, growing, and changing. We at Next Chapter have experienced huge success in working with men who experienced early relational trauma and lacked the ability to successfully self-regulate. Through the utilization of numerous therapeutic modalities, we offer our patients the opportunity to develop whatever emotional skills they may be lacking, and go on to lead emotionally fulfilled, healthy, and productive lives.