Integrating Scripture truths and scientific proofs in Christian counselling (part 1)

Source: SAAP Notes no 28, published June 2015

Dr Hanlie Meyer (Counselling Psychologist in private practice) presented at the SAAP Open Day Seminar of 5 June 2015 on this topic.

As Christian counsellors we have the responsibility to avail ourselves of the latest scientific evidence regarding counselling techniques that are evidence based. There are various ways in which one could approach this momentous and extremely important undertaking. This article represents my personal approach. It is not intended to be compared to or discredit any other approach.

The process I use is the result of an intense personal journey of healing, inspired by my frustration about my own brokenness and the treatment of resistant anxiety, self-judgement, abasement and warped convictions about God plaguing my clients - despite all the knowledge contained in the Scriptures, which I knew so well and quoted with so much passion and persistence!

I was raised in a wonderful, conservative, Afrikaans farm-household. My parents were dedicated churchgoers – Christians who knew the Word of God - but they still suffered from a lot of anxiety that apparently led to bouts of depression. I could not understand how it is possible that one could know so much about God, believe so wholeheartedly in the sacrificial death of Christ and yet be so anxious and fearful about God’s provision or lack thereof.

I also had the same experience: such intense conviction about the reality of the triune God, Jesus our Saviour and the Holy Spirit indwelling us – yet such intense anxiety with depression ensuing from being overwhelmed by the paralysing self-analysis as an effort to get a grip on my anxiety!

No amount of Scripture reading, praying, attending church services, reading commentaries and even “traditional” inner healing prayers could ward off the ever present anxiety with ensuing depression and self-blame. A few of the questions that constantly burned in me are:

  • Why did the feelings of not being loved by God as a Father turn into a conviction – but the conviction of God being a father did not turn into a feeling?
  • Why did the good feelings based on solid knowledge delivered in well-prepared sermons not “stick”?
  • Why did I always feel I had to perform to earn God’s love – despite the knowledge that it is not necessary?
  • Why did everything in me protest against the comforting words of God’s love and care while at the same time my whole being craved it?
  • Why did these comforting words always seem to apply to other people – never to me?

I learned over the years that these burning issues also filled the minds and hearts of my clients and I was paralysed by the knowledge that I could not reach their hearts, just as much as my own heart was unbelieving! Then I discovered the wonderful world of the brain…

Neurobiological findings confirming Scripture

The first breakthrough came when I started reading research from various sources on attachment and attunement: how do we learn to love?

The emotional control system learns in relationships, visible and “tactile” examples, stories and love, rather than through rational prescribed truth and didactic teaching. How does this happen?

Our bond with others (attachment) is the building block for emotional stability and our ability to live in relationships. A few subcortical structures and their interaction seem to play a vital role in this process:

  • Nucleus accumbens – the pain and pleasure centre of the brain. It lights up when we bond with others.
  • If there is no response, we experience pain, rejection, feel discarded, alone and “unwanted/unloved”.
  • The next control centre in line is the amygdala which has to evaluate the experience as safe, unsafe or scary. This evaluation is totally subjective and permanent once it has been made.
  • The third centre of control is the cingulate cortex, situated just above the corpus callosum. This area provides an important interface between the cortical and subcortical areas – it helps us to interpret our environment, helps to orientate ourselves therein and guides us towards the proper emotional response.
  • The highest centre of control is the orbital medial prefrontal cortex (ompfc). This area integrates information from external and internal sources and enables us to interpret complicated social information and synchronize it with our own emotions. This is how “attachment” patterns are formed and autobiographical memories created.
  • With the correct early development, the ompfc can then control the emotional areas, guide our choices, initiate creativity and even improve our immune systems.

Babies express themselves through instinct and emotion

Sensitive and “attuned” caregiver-child interaction improves the child’s emotional security, sense of self and cognitive development and helps regulate the autonomic nervous system - this allows important control systems to develop. In the absence of this: depression and/or anxiety develops.

A baby’s’ brain only develops in interaction with another (mature) brain.

Early relationships form the basis of every aspect of internal and external functioning throughout our entire lives.

Without healthy early attachment, later life is characterized by infantile dependency needs that weren’t satisfied and the inner world is filled with internalized objects with which intense emotional relationships exist. Early relationships form this internal world and these patterns are maintained throughout life. Our reactions are thus constantly governed by an emotional inner reality which stays immature! This renders the individual more or less powerless to respond to mature relationship invitations/demands.

The nervous system scans the external environment to prevent overload and only takes in information for which it has been prepared by its own unique internal patterns, formed from birth. The experiences are encoded directly in the circuits and can be “triggered” by incidents in the present moment. The true reality is filtered by emotions and past learning. Emotions thus constantly regulate our experience of reality.

Healthy development of ‘attachment’ relationships leads to the child’s brain taking over the regulation of emotions in order to self-regulate. This regulation is developed through brain-interaction, not verbally or on a cognitive level. These non-verbal perceptions and interpretations encoded in the right hemisphere form the context for verbal communication. It includes the interpretation of tone of voice, facial expression and body language.

This encoding and interaction between the adult brain and baby/child brain forms attachment templates.

The neuronal networks thus contain models or ‘templates’ of how relationships work, based on the prototypes of relationships formed in early childhood.