Psychotherapy is geared towards our capacity to do both. But what about our brains.
According to neuroscience, our emotional center, the instinctual part of our brain that is geared towards flight or fight is the amygdala. When we have a strong emotional reaction, like fear or a traumatic experience, e.g. a child’s death or ongoing illness, or as a soldier fighting a war, then our brains (and bodies) lay down memories. Most of these memories are not conscious. Here is what neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux says in a discussion with John Brockman:
“The brain can produce emotional responses in us that have very little to do with what we think we’re dealing with or talking about or thinking about at the time. In other words, emotional reactions can be elicited independent of our conscious thought processes. For example, we’ve found pathways that take information into the amygdala without first going through the neocortex, which is where you need to process it in order to figure out exactly what it is and be conscious of it. So, emotions can be and, in fact, probably are mostly processed at an unconscious level. We become conscious and aware of all this after the fact.”
How do we become conscious of our emotions? There are many ways but one powerful way is writing about our experiences that are attached to those emotions. This is what many people do when they “journal”. But what if our writing is simply re-enacting the original trauma or incident and so rather than being able to move forward, we are stuck in a loop. It may feel cathartic to write but it may not actually be engaging our cortex and allowing us to mediate our experience. Might there be techniques and ways of writing that would in fact begin to make the cortex take on a role and help us with overwhelming feelings?
Neuroscientist and now writing educator, Judy Willis says:
“The amygdala is a switching station (there’s one on each side of the brain) in the brain’s emotional-monitoring limbic system that determines if input will go to the reflective, higher cognitive brain (the prefrontal cortex) or down to the reactive, involuntary brain.
The brain scans of subjects learning in supportive and emotionally pleasurable situations show facilitated passage of information through the amygdala up to the higher cognitive brain, so learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer. Stress, however, determines if the intake is sent to that lower reactive brain.”
So, might our writing about traumatic experiences be best done in a supportive group? And might we structure writing exercises that help people get beyond painful experiences by giving them ways to reflect in writing, by helping them focus on the here and now of their bodily experiences, and writing about that? Or by asking them to use their imaginations and conceive of themselves as an animal or landscape and write about that image? In fact, just helping them find images, metaphors, similes, the language and structures of creative writing may also engage the pathways to the cortex that seem so vital for mediating emotional experience, and engaging our thinking.
I believe this is possible. Others have come to these same conclusions and there are writing manuals geared to help individuals move through emotional whirlwinds and find balance in their lives. I also teach a writing workshop for parents who have children with ongoing health issues. This workshop brings individuals into a supportive atmosphere where I provide structured writing time and time for sharing (if people want to). One new participant exclaimed after her first session that it felt so “luxurious” to be writing this way vs. just keeping records of all the behaviors and events in her child’s life.
I no longer believe (if I ever did) that it is a luxury to find time to write. I firmly believe it is a way to keep my sanity and provide me with much needed inner strength and aliveness, to keep going as a caretaker of a special needs child. I believe writing can help us think and feel about our lives, allowing us to gain perspective and be able to reflect on what we can do as parents and advocates for our children and what is out of our control..