Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Have you ever known of a successful gymnast who doesn’t work constantly to build and maintain flexibility using a variety of exercises? Neither have I. Like gymnasts, trauma survivors benefit greatly from special exercises to facilitate neuroplasticity. In this post I share one I’ve developed and use.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt to changing environmental stimuli, which it accomplishes by creating new neural connections and growing new neurons (Klorer, 2005; Siegel, 2010). Neuroplasticity gives possibility for the brain to recovery after injury.
When trauma takes place, our automatic survival mechanisms pave a kind of emergency highway in the brain (see image). This highway is managed by the “instinctual brain” and coordinates the fight and flight mechanisms we are wired to use in emergencies. The instinctual brain “owns” this highway and assumes broad control of all our brain and bodily functions when we are on it.
Emergency highway creation can be a life-saver, enabling us to rapidly fend off or escape mortal danger. But once created, an emergency highway doesn’t go away. It remains paved as a neural pathway with a variety of quick access entry ramps. Our instinctual brain can be easily triggered to re-enter it by any signals, perceived or real, from our senses that remind us of the original threat. These could be: a smell, a taste, a sound, a sight, a body motion or sensation, anything that we associate with the old trauma.
When this happens, we are instantly on an entry ramp to the emergency highway, where the instinctual brain rules. Even if there is no danger at hand, our sensory associations with a past time of danger put the instinctual brain back in charge, for a few seconds at least, and possibly longer, depending on where we are on the trauma integration path. If we enter fully onto the emergency highway, we go into “first alert mode“ (Stage 2 in the ETI model) and then follow a predictable sequence of responses, the next phase usually being withdrawal (stage 3 in the ETI model).
Threat of danger is for many people an inescapable part of existence, so we don’t want to dismantle our emergency highway creation system. But emergency mode is an extravagant consumer of energy and a wicked disrupter of normal life. We don’t want to “hit the highway” unless we truly need to. Trauma survivors’ vulnerability to constant takeover by the instinctual brain, triggered by the slightest association with past trauma, can devastate the routines of life.
Neuroplasticity exercises facilitate movement beyond the emergency highway network by assisting us to ‘build bridges’ over it, create early off-ramps for exit when are on it, and develop alternate, more sustainable avenues of response. The more we practice, the less vulnerable we become to unwanted triggering of our sensory system and the faster we can move through the stages of recovery when we have been triggered.
Researchers have studied for some time how to facilitate and enhance neuroplasticity. A few activities have been demonstrated to be effective in this. Chief among them are prayer, meditation and yoga, and expressive arts (listening to and playing music, drawing, movement and drama and so forth). It is critical to understand why so few activities are effective, for if we do not, we can waste a lot of time, effort, money, and hope in strategies that seem like they ought to help but actually don’t.
The Lizard part of the brain
I use a lizard metaphor in describing the instinctual brain. Like a lizard, the instinctual brain is quick, flighty, and unsophisticated in ability to assess or communicate. The character in charge of the emergency highway is unresponsive to reason, analysis, or verbal engagement!
Activities found to be effective in expanding neuroplasticity engage the instinctual brain at the pre-cognitive level at which it functions. The goal is not to bring the instinctual brain to higher functioning - its job is not higher functioning, but only to manage basic lower level systems of survival. So in treatment we aim to induce the instinctual brain to relax its command of crisis management and allow other brain functions to re-engage, such as good judgment, ability to separate past from present experience, moral judgment, and meaning making in regards to traumatic experiences.
The G.E.N.A sequence below is rich in pre-cognitive modalities that can engage the instinctual brain – mindful grounding, spontaneous art making, naming (bringing back cognitions) and mindful movement and embodiment that anchor the experience in an integrated expressive pose. I think of the sequence as building a web of connections between the instinctual brain and the emotional and thinking parts of the brain, which have resources for building more sustainable avenues of response.
I developed the G.E.N.A sequence across several years of work with individuals and groups in which I sought to integrate mindfulness, art making, expressive arts and movement and body oriented approaches into one sequence. Perhaps it goes without saying that it works well for many people but not for everyone.
In therapy and training with individuals and groups I start with a warm-up - an activity that evokes spontaneity - as an entry point to expressive therapy work on any issue, including trauma.
Have a skilled therapist guide and accompany this activity. Don’t lead others through it unless you are a trained trauma therapist with experience working with expressive and/or body oriented approaches*.
The following instructions assume a group setting but can also be used with individuals.
Begin with preliminary information about the sequence. Anyone may “pass” and skip any activity at any stage. Participants can sit up or lie down, whatever they prefer. Present the “reset” activity** as a resource for any time someone feels flooded by emotions and cannot continue. In most cases the sense of flooding will go away after taking a few deep breaths.
Introduce the concept of expansion and contraction by pointing out that if we pay attention to inner signals, we begin to notice a feeling of contracting or expanding in response to certain things. This provides valuable information about ourselves. When a tiny physical sense of contraction takes place, it suggests that we are not moving in the right direction. A sense of expansion, on the other hand, may be a signal to move ahead and continue.
Grounding. Use guided imagination to connect participants to a safe space. You can use music in the background, if desired. Here is an example for a short meditation instruction that I use. If you are experienced with conducting meditations use your own. Make sure to adapt the meditation to the participants’ context (Are they new to meditation, what is their trauma history, how far are they from the traumatic experience?) as a meditation could trigger retraumatization unless introduced in a contained way).
Expressing. Ask participants to artistically portray the safe space of the grounding stage, using art materials (minimum of 15 min).
Naming. Ask participants to give a name (one word) to that safe space.
Anchoring. Invite participants to stand in whatever way is comfortable and try to feel where the name they chose for “safe space” resonates in their body. Then invite them to….
• Take a few breaths, close their eyes, let the word move around their body, and allow their body to follow or respond in any way it wants.
• Pay attention to how their body wants to move, whether a tiny movement or a large gesture, and respond to that wish in a way that facilitates melting of frozenness. Then invite them to…
• Find a position where they feel comfortable and experience a sense of expansion. If they feel contraction, move in a different direction until they find a sense of expansion.
• When they feel a sense expansion and the pose feels right, invite them to anchor the sensation of safe space in their body. Suggest they take a few breaths and remember the sense of expansion in their body, perhaps imagining they are growing an extension that anchors that pose in all their systems (emotional, spiritual, physical, etc) ***.
I usually give a break after this activity and encourage participants to reflect alone and write down how they felt, paying attention to body sensations, images, sensory responses and so forth. Then I invite participants for group sharing, with the understanding that anyone may pass.
*I suggest therapists first acquaint themselves with the sequence by using it with someone who has not experienced trauma in the last six months or longer. The possibility of retraumatization – in mindful and embodied work, opening up or triggering emotions that the participants are not ready to deal with now – must be a constant concern. Evaluate your abilities in reference to the participant’s situation carefully. Move systematically to build a sense of safety for the participant and to help him or her build connections to inner resources.
**Reset exercise: If the sense of contraction persists, or a sense of flooding persists, , try this “reset” exercise: Ask the participant to jump up and down (as fast as they can) 10 times and then sit down and (preferably leaning back on something). Then have the participant take 5 long, slow in-breaths, (each about 4 seconds long, then held for one second before releasing), breathe out long and slow (for about 5 sec)..
***When working on a traumatic experience, this anchoring activity can be used as an entry point for trauma processing. To do this, I use psychodrama and movement techniques and imaginal space to create a vignette that I’ve tailored to fit the context of the participants and where they are in the therapeutic process. In such cases the anchoring phase begins with the the same movement as the activity above. Once there is a pose – we create a scene around that pose and conclude with an embodied pose that the participant is comfortable to end on. This could be a wishful pose, a progress pose, a protective pose, etc. I guide the particpant to choose a pose that brings a sense of expansion rather than contraction.
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Klorer, P. G. (2005). Expressive therapy with severely maltreated children: Neuroscience contributions. Art Therapy, 22(4), 213-220.
Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.