Integrating Scripture Truths and Scientific Proofs in Christian Counselling (part 2)

Source: SAAP Notes no 29, published Aug 2015

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

What we have learnt thus far:

  • Parenting is much more than feeding and saying “I love you”
  • Non-verbal communication during the first few years of life forms the foundation for all future relational learning.
  • The relational templates formed during these initial or primary learning experiences become the “gospel” to the developing individual.
  • As adults we believe this “gospel” as it is deeply embedded as implicit emotional memories that govern all our interpretations of current incidents and interactions.
  • The amygdala does not have context – it only has content – therefore an intense emotional memory triggered by a current incident/interaction “jumps at” a person as if the original negative incident is taking place in the present moment. The time between the first incident and the triggered emotional memory is not considered in this subjective emotional process.
  • The intensity and subjective reality created by these triggered memories cause the individual to believe that what he or she experiences now, is the ultimate truth.
  • This is re-enforced by repeated incidents accompanied by the same intense subjective emotional response.
  • As there are more connections from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex than the other way around, these triggered emotional memories have the ability to overwrite the rational feedback from the prefrontal cortex. The self-defence mechanism is so strong that rationality is lost.
  • Toxic thoughts and behaviour patterns are thus learnt from early childhood.
  • This causes people when under stress to act in ways they themselves despise!

Let us now continue our exploration of these subcortical structures that are implicated in relational functioning.

The amygdala is generally referred to as the 911 centre of the brain. This is due to the above-mentioned fact that it has the responsibility to subjectively evaluate people and/or situations as safe, unsafe or scary. The amygdala has connections to various subcortical structures of which three connections are important in our discussion:

Firstly, the connection to the hypothalamus: the hypothalamus is stimulated when a person, incident or situation is deemed scary or unsafe. The hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland and immediately 56 stress hormones are released. This is part of the warning system of the body. If this could not take place, we would endanger ourselves. However when this process becomes chronic as when constant repeated abuse (be it verbal, non-verbal, emotional, financial, physical or sexual abuse) or neglect takes place, the amygdala is constantly on “red alert” (my term!). The implication is that the overstressed brain cannot return to a healthy position of rest. The individual thus chronically experiences anxiety and tends to be unnecessarily vulnerable to most uncomfortable situations. The individual’s resilience is severely impaired in the process. Cortisol is one of the stress hormones released during stressful situations. Cortisol however has the ability to corrupt the receptors on cell surfaces. These receptors then lose their selective ability and allow all kinds of toxic chemicals to enter the cells – especially viruses and peptides representing negative emotions. These substances can even enter into the cell nucleus and change the genetic expression. In this way something like depression can start in a specific generation.

Secondly, the connection to the brainstem: when a situation/person/incident is deemed to be scary or unsafe a message is sent via the brainstem to the autonomous nervous system which starts off the fight/flight response. This response is also critical for survival but as in the case of the hypothalamic response when this warning is sent chronically due to the constant negative experiences (including of course violence and war) the body is constantly in a position of alertness and the responses become too intense.

All of the above can lead to suppression of the immune system and stress related illnesses come to the fore. The individual also becomes more vulnerable to infections, chronic fatigue, depression and even panic attacks. When parents do not have the ability to soothe their own brains under stress or in dangerous situations or place their young baby or toddler in danger – through abuse of one another or the child, the young brain does not learn to sooth itself. Consequently the developing brain might learn substandard responses to stressful life events and become vulnerable to situations/people that are actually not so threatening that a fight/flight response is warranted.

The unsafe attachment conditioned into the warning system of the young brain gets projected on other people without conscious awareness thereof. Unfortunately it is also projected on God – especially on God as a Father. This means that the individual is biased in his/her perception of God as a Father and cannot appropriate His love.

Thirdly, the connection to the nucleus accumbens that forms part of the reward system of the brain.

Whenever there is a positive attachement experience – in other words a positive caregiver-child bond or a positive relational experience with someone else the amygdala will send a message to the nucleus accumbens where high concentrations of dopamine are formed and relaesed. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that causes us to feel alert and positive and encourages the brain to seek more of the same. The same neurotransmitter is made available in the synapse between two neurons in large amounts when cocaine is taken. Subsequently the feeling of pleasure is increased. The implication is that individuals who experience emotional neglect or abuse become vulnerable to the pronounced pleasure produced by a drug like cocaine.

Unfortunately the pleasure system can alsobe stimulated errouneously when a negative experience is avoided by negative or isolating behaviour. This convinces the individual that the inapplicable/ inappropriate response is the better one – after all drawing near to people leads to hurt and that needs to be avoided at all cost to cause the amygdala to calm down.

The hippocampus is the subcortical structure responsible for temporarily storing information from various brain areas. In this area a prelimanary evaluation is made regarding the new inputs before the inforamtion is sent to the prefrontal cortex. However when the amygdala experiences something as severley negative or dangerous the input to the hippocampus is cut off and a rational response is undermined. The result is that old habitual self-defense or self-preservation responses are repeated, old interpretations are strengthened, old convictions are re-inforced. This means that if God has been associated with a negative caregiver the negative image is also re-inforced. The old relational template will be kept intact leaving many a counsellor disheartened and clients disillusioned!

Now where does this leave us as Christians and Christian counsellors?