When we experience griefs, losses, or traumas our brains record those moments as retrievable memory files.
John, a thirty-five-year-old client, was struggling with depression. A survey into his “roots of bitterness” gave several examples of a rigid, disengaged father and an enmeshed mother. His dad had always elevated rules and behavior presentation as the most important part of childhood. To his dad, if you acted right, did the right things and submitted to his standards, you were effectively being groomed for success.
Unfortunately, John’s Dad was also disengaged. He didn’t know how to share emotional moments. While rebuke or lecture were not uncommon, celebrations were rare. John never knew what it was like to have a Dad check-in, with non-judgmental interest and exploration, into John’s emotional state.
John grew up never feeling really seen, known, felt, or connected to by his dad. What further saddened John was that his Dad thought they were very close because his dad had a lifetime of examples where he had “discipled” John into a good man. But John was empty of nurture, intimacy, and shared emotional experiences. He had little to feel around laughing together, grieving together, or feeling together.
John’s mother was also struggling with her marriage to his Dad. Because of her need for emotional connection, that John’s Dad never developed skill or awareness for, she would turn to John’s budding personality. John was a natural at being a good listener. His cognitive skills for connecting thoughts and observing details in social environments made him a source of wisdom, comfort and connection.
John’s mother learned how to access John’s special competencies to meet her emotional needs. She would share with him her marital problems, her own feelings of grief, and her sadness at life. She needed support and found that John was a deepening resource.
John was confused by the feelings of power when his mom turned towards him for comfort and wisdom. He felt alive and powerful, but also felt he was responsible for his mom. He struggled to separate his own emotional sense of self, and his own emotional regulation, as he managed hers. When she was upset, angry, or depressed, John felt that way too. He would become anxious to figure out what she needed. His emotional state was often set to the thermostat of her emotional temperature.
Meanwhile, John’s Dad knew that he couldn’t satisfy his wife’s emotional needs. He became weary early on in the marriage realizing he didn’t know how to make her feel loved or meet her emotional longings. John’s Dad felt a great relief that his wife finally found a source of refuge, so he could go on with his own ambitions without her distractions. His Dad was more than relieved and happy that she found strength in John as John became more mature and capable. At least it wasn’t another man outside the marriage.
John, as an adult, couldn’t figure out why he was so depressed. His wife, his elders, his friends, all thought he was living the American dream. He had success. He had financial stability. He had a growing church. His influence had gained a large following. He had a great wife and family. His parents hadn’t physically abused him. His parents loved him. His childhood was with a nice Christian home and lots of opportunity. How could he possibly be depressed?
Unfortunately, what all his comforters, the voices assessing his life, didn’t know is that John had begun medicating his depression. He would fantasize acting out with alcohol bingeing, and even flirting with ladies. He found this made him feel alive, an aroused sense of life. Then in a more rational moment he would begin to feel deep shame. The shame of not being enough and being a disappointment would fire up his depressed state. He was stuck in a cycle and saw no way out.
MAKING SENSE OF JOHN’S STORY
Now, let’s strip all this back and analyze John’s story in view of the raw reality. John’s Dad abdicated his responsibility to meet the needs of his wife to a young middle school boy that he, as a grown man, was incompetent to fulfill. John’s mom elevated her own emotional need above the needs of John. John should have lived as a happy, easy going, playful child. He should have felt seen, heard, nurtured, and celebrated independent of his rule-keeping and the way he presented useful giftings. This should have been his reality through middle-school and all his teenage life.
John was not equipped neurobiologically to carry these weights. He knew nothing of boundaries, differentiation, transference, or countertransference. He had no mentor to make sense of what he was carrying. There were no therapists to guide him. There were no adults to form his brain in the love circuits God designed our brains to require for health and functionality.
John was forced to give up a childhood to be uber responsible for the rules of Dad, and the emotional states of a Mom. As his brain evolved it built unidentified pockets of grief, from a lost childhood and insufficient emotional nurture.
All of these actions, one circuit at a time, created strong neuropathways of dysfunction in John’s brain. Around these neuropathways energy pockets from grief, sorrow, and loss were built. These energy pockets grew and produced neurochemicals that emotionally, he experienced as depression.
In time John met a girl, got married, had kids and became a great pastor. Yet, when John would least expect it, he would feel unloved, unknown, unseen and emotionally responsible for everyone else’s happiness. No matter how hard he tried. No matter how many successes. No matter how many people came under his leadership. He was emotionally exhausted. He emotionally identified that no one really cared. No one really knew him. No one wanted him. He was damaged in his sense of belonging.
JESUS, THE HEART & THE BRAIN
Jesus spoke of how the heart is the epicenter of all human thought, emotion and behavior. He tells stories, like the “Sower who sows the Word,” where the enemy is assessing the condition of the heart to skew perception of God and His promises. Everything from afflictions, to persecutions, to over assessing personal responsibility, to inordinate distractions and rageful bursts of desire – will impact the way the heart processes self and life.
In neuroscience, the epicenter that parallels the biblical heart is the lower brain. The brainstem and limbic system carry the same systems as the biblical heart. When griefs, losses and traumas happen to a person, the brain records those happenings for future threat referencing.
Threat referencing is when the brain subconsciously scans the horizon for anything that poses a threat. It primarily looks for similarities of factors and variables that it has felt wounds from in the past. If an upcoming data point that is similar to a past wound is possibly on the horizon the brain alert to the potential threat. If we have had large griefs, losses and traumas from a similar incident the brain will react as though the threat is right in front of us, even though it is really so far away and indistinct that nothing more than awareness should be triggered.
The lower brain contains the brain stem, which takes the brain’s functions and delivers them to every part of the body. It is primarily focused on survival. It is always asking, “Am I safe?” When it is in heightened intensity the cognitive and rational functions of the brain are diminished. This is why when a cat jumps around a corner and on top of you, your first instinct reaction is to jump, run or throw the cat as far as you can. Your heart rate races. Your blood pressure is up. Your excitement level is elevated. Your brain is functioning from the survival networks in the brain stem. Once you realize it is your playful cat, you take a few minutes to calm the neurocircuits and neurochemicals to return to a regulated state.
Another part of the lower brain is the limbic brain. The limbic brain is the emotional and social part of the brain. When you experience large moments of pain, loss, rejection, betrayal or just feeling unseen, your limbic brain will record those moments for future use.
The amygdala, one of the limbic structures, is where our intense emotions for fight, flight and freeze spawn from. It is believed to be mostly matured when a baby is born. Babies can feel intense fight, flight, and freeze emotions from the time they are born. When neglect or abuse happens, the baby will have files of memory that are emotional, without the luxury of a memory context or memory understanding. In other words, the files are not contextualized with other structures that help it make sense or to have the ability to process through the emotional moment.
Another structure, the hippocampus, is responsible for developing long-term memories. These long-term memories are primarily about memory context and the surrounding variables. The hippocampus is designed to network with the amygdala’s emotional records, giving scenery and backstory to the emotional memories. The hippocampus is believed to not be fully developed until the child is into the teen years. This means that many emotional memories are built into us – built as states of being and the experiencing of everyday life – without our brains having access to memory context or surrounding variables. All we know is that we are feeling off, unloved, not belonging, etc.
The higher brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational thinking brain, is not developed until a child becomes 25 or so years old. This means that if our parents didn’t afford us the privilege of using their emotional nurture to regulate our emotional injuries, we will grow up into middle age adults with no rational way to make sense of many of our anxieties, rage, and depressions.
When a grief, loss or trauma happens to us as young people, the hippocampus’ side of the memory is not able to fully understand the context, and the prefrontal cortex is not able to have the reasonable clarity to help make sense of it all. So, our brains build these survival instincts that are deeply emotional but make no rational sense to an on looker.
John’s freedom from depression needed to address the biblical heart, “roots of bitterness” that spring up, and the reprogramming of the brain’s neuro grief-energy-pockets. The Apostles called it renewing the mind. Trauma informed Psychologist call it trauma-processing.
In short, until we know what is driving us, we will always be driven by invisible forces and try to solve them with mystical tools that aren’t addressing the roots.
RED INK REVIVAL – PERSONAL DISCOVERY EXPERIENCES
At Red Ink Revival we have created a biblical, psychological and theological model to help you understand why you do what you do. We have created opportunities like our Personal Discovery Experience, which is a two-hour event with 6-20 others, that explores your own roots. Personal Discovery Experiences are hosted by me, Patrick Norris, and teammate Psychologist/Therapist.
I hope you will take the risk… take the time… and make it a priority to join us for a PERSONAL DISCOVERY EXPERIENCE.
Go to redinkrevival.com/driven-people to find out more.
It’s time for us all to have a Red Ink Revival!