Dr Ruth Lanius, MD, Ph.D. one of the leading clinical neuroscience researchers in the study of the traumatized brain is of the opinion that trauma influences the balance or vestibular system and she noted the relevance of neurofeedback in the treatment of trauma.
Homeostasis or equilibrium, evenness, or stability is affected by the function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The sympathetic division adapts the body in many ways for physical activity (alertness, fight/flight/freeze, heart rate, blood pressure, pulmonary airflow, blood glucose concentration, blood flow to cardiac and skeletal muscle).
The parasympathetic division has a calming effect on many body functions. It reduces energy expenditure and normal bodily maintenance, including digestion.
During trauma, when the equilibrium is distorted the individual may experience the following symptoms although they may appear unrelated:
- Difficulty with balance
- Feeling on edge
- Feeling numb inside
- Feeling unsafe
- Experiencing a lack of inner connectivity or connectivity with the world outside
- Lack of physical and emotional balance
- And emotional uncertainty amongst other symptoms
According to Dr Lanius, our vestibular system plays a critical role in terms of how we perceive our internal and external worlds.
We experience through smell, sight, taste, hearing, vision, touch, and interoception through which the understanding of our external and internal worlds is formed. The vestibular or balance system helps us to know where our bodies are in space and how to move in space and restore balance.
So the pathway followed when we experience via the sensory organs starts at the reptilian brain, after which sensory processing occurs, then transferred to the limbic system which is responsible for an emotion that is elicited, and finally, translated to the cortex which is responsible for the final safety or self-protective response, ensuring survival and defensive behaviour. This function of self-defensive and self-pertaining includes feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual drive.
Think about riding a mountain bike: a tree is suddenly noticed on a sharp bend and has to be avoided. What happens? The 1st reaction is reflexive then you have an emotional reaction at the level of the limbic system. So the information from the internal and external brain is translated and integrated into the higher level of the brain or the executive region of the brain, which sends the message to the cortex that is associated with thinking and planning and results in swerving out for the tree.
The brain areas involved in this action is the reptilian brain or basal ganglia, then the processing of the information occurs in the amygdala and hippocampus (limbic system) that are involved in emotions after which the integration occurs in the neocortex which deals with conscious thinking, and planning that ultimately transpires in an action (swerving out).
So the information entering the internal and external worlds affects how we feel, think and connect and the information we receive from the inside and outside worlds has an effect on our being. What happens internally is often a reflection of what is going on externally.
How does the vestibular system develop? Sensory input is experienced from a very early in utero period of development where the baby hears the heartbeat of the mother, he is balanced in the amniotic fluid, sucks his fingers through which he experiences the inner world, when he is rocked by the mother after birth or swerved in the air as a toddler, held by the parent with the parent’s hand supporting the neck of the baby in close vicinity of the cerebellum. Apart from the emotional connection, the child must develop a sense of balance. He must learn to stabilize his head and body, maintain posture and gate and orientate as well as coordinating his eyes or gaze and this is how the center of gravity and center of our world is developed as we get connected to the world.
Why is trauma devastating to the individual’s his balance or equilibrium? We get cut off from the world and have difficulty knowing what we feel inside. When the cortex is offline due to trauma and tension, the sensory input does not reach that part of the cortex or the tempero-parietal region which helps us to be conscious of our bodies and the body’s position in space.
Extreme high and continuous levels of stress and trauma will affect the Insula in the temporal lobes which cause emotional dissociation of emotional disconnectedness. Due to the disconnectedness at the sensory input level at the reptilian brain, integration of the information is not reached due to detachment from the body so no integration will occur in the cortex. We therefore, feel numb and cannot pinpoint or define what we feel.
Reconnection with the body is important and to understand or know what we feel and it is critical to restoring balance in the aftermath of trauma.
Dr Lanius discusses the benefit of neurofeedback-treatment (NF)
One of the forms of NF that can be implemented is infra slow fluctuation training to obtain homeostasis. Neurofeedback is non-invasive and based on operant conditioning. It is often noted that via NF the brain is being re-wired.
After birth, the brain develops by being exposed to new stimuli. If the wiring is defective, new stimuli cause disorganization of new information.
To rewire the brain, learning is essential. We can also enhance the process by making use of neurofeedback-therapy. This treatment, specifically infra slow fluctuation training, stimulates metabolism and blood flow, it strengthens dendritic connections as well as enhances the functioning of neurotransmitters, which accounts for improvement in the patient’s ability to carry out cognitive tasks successfully.
With Infraslow fluctuation training (ISF), the purpose is to get to a position where the individual responds with increased awareness of his physiological and mental state and is most relaxed and clear-minded. So what happens during ISF training?
The electrical energy in the brain of each trainee differs and needs to be set to optimize feeling, thinking, and cognitive functioning.
Similar to a radio station that functions most optimally on a specific frequency such as 49.7 or 702, each individual has an optimal frequency.
When the radio station 94.7 is turned to 94.9 the sound will be distorted and has to be tuned to the optimal frequency (94.7).
So the purpose of the ISF training is to obtain the individual’s optimal frequency and train him on that frequency in different areas of the brain to enhance sufficient functioning.
Other forms of treatment to obtain equilibrium are activities prescribed by your Occupational Therapist.
Psychotherapy should be considered with the focus on mindfulness as one option or schema therapy.
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