Soothing the Threatened Brain

Soothing the Threatened Brain by Dr. Susan Johnson So Jane and Carl seek out Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. Before their first therapy session, Jane lies in a MRI machine for a brain scan. She is signaled that a shock to her ankles might be coming. Alone in the machine, her brain lights up like the fourth of July sky and if or when the shock comes, she reports, “It hurts.” When a stranger holds her hand, the results were the same. When Carl holds Jane’s hand, her brain activity again indicates real alarm and she says the shock is painful. Contact with her husband does not soothe or calm her brain. After Jane and Carl’s last therapy session and bonding conversations, Jane is again alone for the fMRI and her brain lights up when she sees the X, indicating that a shock is coming and the shock hurts. When a stranger holds her hand, her alarm response and her pain are a little less. But this time, when Carl holds Jane’s hand and she sees the X, there’s a powerful difference. Little brain activity indicating any kind of anxiety or threat can be seen. The loving contact she now receives from her husband’s touch changes how her brain encodes this threat and she reports that the shock is just uncomfortable. Now that is interesting. In fact, these kinds of results make us forget that we are academics and stuffy old researchers and remind us how to do a touch down victory dance with the best of them. But what does this study, especially the brain scan part of it, tell us? First, that when we make sense of love, we can tune into the attachment channel and shape loving feelings in therapy. Yes, you can evoke this mysterious thing called love just by talking in a new way, a deeper, more emotional way with each other. And when we shape this connection, we can change the way our brains respond to threat and pain. Love is a safety cue that literally calms and comforts the neurons in our brain. Second, these results support all the research on adult love and bonding. They confirm that secure bonds offer us a safe haven from the perils of life and a respite from anxiety. Not just when we’re two or three years old, but as adults. The quality of these bonds then have profound implications, not just for happiness, but for mental and physical health and our ability to face life and its uncertainties with poise and grace. This is just the beginning of the new science of relationships. Is there anything more important for us to understand and shape? We all fear facing life alone, and we all long for loving connections. A hand to hold that changes our world into a safer place and soothes our brain. This reminds me of a saying by Jackson Brown, “Life is slippery, take my hand.”

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