The Brain

Recently I shared a cab with Dr. Sandy Newes, PhD.; we talked about business, mutual friends and families and her work with Q & A Associates. Sandy and I were heading to IECA Chicago where she and Steve Sawyer LCSW, CSAC, New Vision Wilderness, were presenting some of their research on Brain-Based Therapy and Advanced Trauma Work.

The brain is a complicated organ and from what I am told new research is evolving continually.


Our brains process information in three ways: cognitively, emotionally and physically; so it stands to reason that various states of trauma effect how the brain processes given information. Since the Brain is wired for survival mode, varying degrees of trauma affect the way perceives the information to be processed. Assessing danger is the brain’s top priority. That puts a whole new spin on things if you take time to look at your life and the lives of your at-risk teens from that angle.

The brain is divided into 6 Core Regions: Feeling, Feeding; Fighting; Flighting; Freezing and Reproduction. Freezing, According to Newes, is by far the most misunderstood area. Humans, she related are of a herd mentality and Freezing is a protective response. I have to pause here and assess my own thoughts about this. Could this be why often teens, who are so rapidly evolving into adulthood and tend to be over stimulated in their lives with every electronic gadget robbing them of their time that we may misunderstand their lack of response to our stimuli because they are actually in Freezing mode and simply cannot process what we, as parents want from them? That in itself sheds much light on the reactions of tweens, teens and younger adults when you factor in the lack of development of the frontal cortex. Maybe that does not apply to all of them, but certainly to some. Let us continue.

The Executive Functioning of the Brain: planning; goal setting; self-monitoring; memorizing; organizing; promoting, is ultimately what keeps us human. In times of trauma this top part of the brain is in an under functioning state. In other words, this top part of the brain that governs our humanality is not properly engaged when trauma strikes. Further Newes states that what we focus on determines our quality of life and in order to maintain a stable quality of life the goal is to develop a balance between the Executive Functioning and the Core Regions of the brain. In order to make this happen one needs a strong frontal cortex. That in itself is the root of the problem with the young population.

So it stands to reason that because tweens, teens and young adults do not have a fully developed frontal cortex, it cannot be strong enough to establish good Brain Balance on their own. They need help to retrain their brain. Why? Because often they choose the behavioral response of “acting out” which goes along with trauma so their behavior becomes polarized. Are you seeing this in your family?

Sawyer took the discussion from here and launched his thoughts with the fact that interventions often fail because of the way we choose to work through the process. There is no instant fix; it is a process and once it has been established that there is a need then the process must be carried out in order to produce results. It’s about retraining the brain, and it is work to go through the process. True resolution comes with stabilization, reprocessing and integrating the cognitive, physiological and neurological areas of the Brain. This cannot happen overnight; it takes time.

According to Sawyer, trauma falls into one of four survival terrors for the adolescent: I’m going to die; I’m not going to exist; failure; or, mom and dad don’t love me anymore. Trauma interrupts the feelings of safety first established in vitro, but because of the relational attachment which provides the feeling of safety, people are able to redirect anxiety and frustration when trauma throws us into survival mode. However, because the adolescent brain is not fully developed this is often not the case. Sawyer says that we have to go back to basics and build the foundation first so trauma victims have a safe place from which to heal. Otherwise, trauma in adolescents left untreated, results in behavior that is polarized.

Bilateral stimulation, a process in which electronic crickets stimulate alternate sides of the brain, keeps the brain open and prevents brain flooding. You may have heard the term: neurofeedback; that’s what Sawyer is referring to here. Neurofeedback is a noninvasive, electronic brain therapy which retrains the brain to deal with trauma in a positive, self-regulating manner. How many sessions of neurofeedback are necessary? Twenty sessions, Sawyer says, is producing good results and lasting gains.

Ok, let me put this into an abridged version: the adolescent brain is not equipped to process trauma without help because the brain is not fully developed. Therefore it is imperative that at-risk teens – that means teens who have experienced a trauma which interrupts their sense of security leaving them in a state of behavioral polarization – receive assistance through therapy. Therapy comes in many forms and neurofeedback, being one of them, may not be for every adolescent, but it is certainly something to consider. Retraining the brain to be at peace in the midst of trauma allows the brain to process actions appropriately and helps us choose proper behavioral reactions.

Lane Taylor