Recently I came across an incredible book “Being A Brain-Wise Therapist” and have been posting a lot of resources from psychiatrists Bruce Perry and Daniel Siegel. Many of our followers have told me they appreciate these resources as this inside look of the brain can be really helpful for finding out what is going on beneath the surface when someone experiences trauma, addiction, anxiety or depression.
What I find the most incredible, however, is the importance of this understanding for healing and bringing positive change into people’s lives. It also gives an incredible justification for experience-based therapies like our use of adventure therapy.
Two Hemispheres - The Right & Left
If we cut the brain in half long ways we have broken it down into the right and left hemispheres. Although there are billions of different functions across all areas of the brain, understanding the specialties of the right and left is really important; especially when it comes to therapy.
Let’s start with the left hemisphere. The easy way to consider the left is to remember the L’s: Logic, Linear thinking, language and literalness. The left-brain likes it when things make sense. If we go through a certain event, the left-brain attaches words to that experience and likes to find patterns like cause and effect, right and wrong, and yes or no.
The right brain, on the other hand, is much more receptive and nonlinear. It is responsible for understanding nonverbal communication, how we interact in relationships and helps with using words creatively such as in poetry or music. It's our meaning maker.
Bringing this understanding to our emotions, as is so pivotal in psychotherapy, the left and right hemispheres work in different ways. Our right brain, which is centred on relationship and emotional understanding, is where our reactionary emotions are produced. When there is a threat, our right brain decides if we should avoid or withdrawal. The left brain, with its logical thinking, creates emotions based on our approach to the experience (i.e. Expectations).
To make some of this jargon more comprehendible, think of left-brain and the L’s and the right brain and Relational. Overtime, research has suggested that more than any other factor contributing to outcomes in therapy, the relationship between you and the therapist is one of the most important. And doesn’t that make sense!
Our relational mind begins creating relational meaning from the moment we are born. Babies that miss this connection may develop abnormally or have physical and mental health issues later in life. The brain will literally not grow. This goes the same for those that have experienced trauma (more about this from a previous blog on addiction). The relational right brain is active well before the logical left. This is where the therapist can help.
A psychologist, counsellor or social worker knowledgeable in this style of work is very focused on the conditions required for healing. And it’s all about relationship. When you see your therapist you should feel safe, secure and supported. While difficult emotions may emerge, this sense of security helps you to stay present for re-wiring areas of the right brain required for healthy self-regulation.
This type of work goes deeper than words and talking. It is not about the acquisition of skills or techniques but truly healing in a relational context, both with your self, family, loved ones and the world. During a session you may decide to talk about a difficult scenario or something challenging that happened earlier in your life. If you can stay present with these feelings you will be working to re-write this memory ensuring growth and change.
The big takeaway from the right brain’s role in therapy is remembering the motto “Connection before Correction”. Feeling safe and attuned with your therapist is the real first step before a big change.
If you would like to learn more about this approach, with children or adults, feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.