This month’s column is the second which deals with the effects of trauma on the brain’s ability to process information. In the first, we described how even seeing a traumatic situation (a car crash) might affect both the thinking and planning abilities of a child. We commented that these abilities, “can be replaced with high levels of emotional reactivity and impulsivity…(and) for Theo, it sounds like the traumatic memory has locked his mind and body into a recurring pattern of arousal where his thinking, logical brain is hijacked by the feeling part of his brain.” We also stated, “Next month we will write about the benefits of Brain Gym which … can teach Theo how to maximize his ability to soothe himself, manage his behaviour and get his thinking/learning back into gear.” The analysis of just how our emotions affect our brain functions falls into a new area called neuroscience and we have been particularly interested in how various exercises can affect our mental states. Current research suggests that all of our systems: nervous, immune and endocrine, are communicating and reacting to each other and that each affects and is affected by the other. In short – we’re even more complicated than most of us can imagine. Both the body and our brain have many communication sites that receive biochemical messages and body movement influences the manufacture and the transportation of the informational substances (called “messenger molecules”) that flow throughout our systems. Most of us are familiar with the finding that endorphins are produced when we run (think of the runner’s “high”). It’s also been found that slow lateral (sidetoside) movement stimulates the manufacture of the chemical dopamine and this affects or ability to see patterns and the rate at which we learn. So, movements affect the amount of dopamine and this in turn also affects many of our emotions and our intentional movements. The Brain Gym movements that we mentioned in our November article can help to stimulate production of both endorphins and dopamine as well as assisting in integrating the various functions of the brain. Currently, it sounds like Theo’s learning and behavioural difficulties might be occurring when information is not flowing freely among his brain communication centers. Undoubtedly, Theo’s brain is in chaos after witnessing the car accident. The right kinds of brief exercises could be used to redirect the flow of information within his brain and to restore his innate ability to learn and to function at the same levels as he did prior to the accident. Let’s look at three specific exercises which might be used to help in this case. Theo could be started with an exercise called Positive Points. Simply ask him to hold his forehead lightly with the fingertips of both hands and then pull up lightly on the skin towards his hairline. The warmth in his hands and the energy created by this stretching are enough to keep blood and warmth in his front brain where he can think more clearly and imagine futurebased plans. This is exactly what’s needed to stop a classic response to overwhelming stress in which the blood flows back from the front of the brain to the reactive survival centers at the back of the brain. Reversing this flow also stops the panic and reactivity that you may have been seeing in Theo. Another exercise called the Butterfly Hug is very useful in helping children (big people, too) to soothe themselves.
The arms are crossed over the chest with the palms resting just below the collarbone. Then the hands are alternatively tapped on the upper chest. One or two minutes of this appears to stimulate a relaxation response which shifts brain activity from the alarm centers. Doing this will give Theo an opportunity to soothe himself, think about choices and feel in control of his decisions. Giving him some resources so that he can disrupt the patterns of anxiety and panic is very empowering. Finally, we might suggest an exercise to help balance the body and brain to create more relaxation and improved thinking. It is called Polarized Breathing and it achieves its results by cooling a part of the brain (hypothalamus) that analyses our brain chemistry which affects our mood. Polarized Breathing involves nothing more than putting one’s tongue against the roof of the mouth; closing one nostril with the thumb while breathing (3 times) though the other nostril, then releasing this nostril and breathing (3 times) through the other nostril. We will admit that when we first encountered these and dozens of other simple body based exercises we were skeptical. Our reading and daily experience with dozens of clients has convinced us that the effects of trauma; disturbances in mood and in learning and general energy level can all be influenced positively by using the appropriate combinations of activities.