We need a way to think about what’s happening inside her head. Daniel Siegel, a noted brain researcher, in his book, The Developing Mind, explains that mental health includes a fully integrated brain – the left, the right, the front, the back, the top and the bottom. For example, the left side of the brain is thought to deal generally with thinking, logic, numbers, etcetera, while the right side deals with emotions, art and so forth.
Let’s apply this principle to this girl. She has a fear. That’s an emotion. That would be on the right side of her brain. Correct? When we engage her in a logical discussion – that’s in the left side – about safety at home, she says, “I know I’m safe, but I still feel unsafe.” So there’s a disconnect between left side of her brain, where she thinks, and the right side, where she feels. The two sides aren’t communicating. The trick, then, is to get them integrated – connected again. So how would we do that? Would you tell her “to get over it?” Well, she’s already tried that. She got told that a lot by a lot of folks and it didn’t work. How about, “Suck it up and live with it.” She heard that a lot, too. But that doesn’t work either. She needs to feel calm at school so she can concentrate on learning. So what can we do?
Well, Daniel Siegel gives us another clue. At the EMDREA National Conference in 2011, in his plenary presentation, he said, “Trauma inhibits brain integration.” One way to understand that statement is this way. When information that implies danger or severe loss comes in from the senses, the part of the brain that stores memory can malfunction. Normally it stores emotional data in the right cortex and cognitive data in the left, but, when under severe stress, the information can be encoded differently. Some of it can be randomly sent all over the brain in bits and pieces, instead of a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s almost like the part that stores memory freaks out from the stress.
I met a man once who was plagued with terrible images of an auto accident – flashes of seeing another car barreling into the side of his. In this memory, the car would never hit him. It always stopped just before impact. It was just a piece of the event – a flashback. The memory itself was not integrated. It would come to him suddenly, when he was driving or just as he was drifting off to sleep, making driving and sleeping difficult or impossible. By the way, he got over that in four sessions with EMDR.
Now, here’s another way memory can be maladaptively encoded during stress. It may stay in the limbic system – down in the center of the brain – where it never should have been stored. How do we know this? Well, brain scans. We can actually see it. When this happens, it stays there unchanged, like a little burning hot coal.
I talked to a man of thirty or so, who would have panic attacks when people argued. When he was four, he witnessed a fist fight between two adult men. When he told me about it, he was able to tell a story. So what was encoded was a full event. But when I asked him how upsetting it was on a scale from zero to ten, he said it was a ten. It had never faded. The memory of it sat there with its painful emotion all those years without change – no re- encoding, no adaptive change. This fearsome image was triggered when people got angry. When he talked about it, he said things like, “I was scared. I didn’t want them to fight. I wondered if I did something to make them mad. I wondered if somebody was going to hit me.” We desensitized that memory and reprocessed it. His thoughts sounded more like an adult as he talked about it. He said things like, “Now that I think about it, they were friends later,” and, “Maybe they were drunk,” and, “My mom got me out of there so I was okay.” This is what I believe happened to the fearful girl, as well. The right-side traumatic memory has never integrated with her logical left-side brain.