Understanding Trauma’s Impact – Insights by Drs. Huberman & Conti

Intro

Unlock the secrets of your brain’s response to trauma and stress with our latest exploration into the science of expressiveness, honesty, and the power of writing. Delve into the enlightening revelations of Dr. Andrew Huberman and Dr. Paul Conti, as they unravel how our experiences rewire us—and how penning down our deepest emotions can pave the way for remarkable personal transformation. Whether you’re a “low express” or a “high express,” this journey through the prefrontal cortex and the truth about our emotions promises to illuminate the mechanistic wonders of the written word. Join us to uncover the therapeutic power of storytelling encoded in your neural circuitry.

Physiological differences in expressiveness

In exploring the effect of trauma on individuals, Dr. Andrew Huberman and Dr. Paul Conti have provided insights into how experiences can alter brain and neural circuitry, leading to changes in emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functions. Dr. Conti’s definition of trauma encompasses any event that impacts our brain and body in a way that affects our functioning going forward. This assertion suggests that most people carry some form of trauma within their nervous system, which can also include significant stressors that are an inevitable part of life. Despite the negative connotations of trauma and stress, Dr. Huberman discusses the potential for positive transformation through specific learning processes. In a four-part series on mental health with Dr. Conti, Dr. Huberman delves into a particular journaling exercise designed to help individuals confront difficult experiences. Although the protocol is intense and short-term, the act of writing about distressing experiences can evoke emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and frustration. An interesting aspect of this protocol is the distinction between individuals identified as “low expresses” and “high expresses” when journaling their emotions related to distressing events. This classification is independent of one’s level of introversion or extroversion; instead, it’s based on the expressive quality and emotional intensity conveyed in their writing. Low expresses tend to write with less descriptive language and exhibit calmer physiological responses, including lower levels of cortisol, skin conductance, heart rate, and blood pressure. High expresses, on the other hand, use more negative language and display heightened physiological and emotional distress, often crying or displaying intense emotional reactions while writing. Despite these differences, both groups progress differently over the course of the journaling protocol. Low expresses gradually become more distressed, while high expresses experience a decrease in distress levels, suggesting a cathartic effect. The most important takeaway from this journaling exercise is that both low and high expresses benefit from the process. Regardless of one’s natural writing style or level of expressiveness, engaging in this protocol can lead to significant reductions in distress and baseline stress levels over time—weeks, months, and even years later. This journaling approach not only serves as a therapeutic tool but also promotes a deeper understanding of how language patterns in writing and speech reflect our underlying psychological state, as demonstrated in the studies conducted by Pennebaker and colleagues.

Prefrontal cortex and truth telling

The prefrontal cortex plays a critical role in regulating our emotions and understanding events. When we increase activity in the prefrontal cortex by analyzing why emotions arose or understanding our roles in certain situations, this elevated activity helps regulate subcortical structures such as the hypothalamus and limbic system. This concept was intriguingly demonstrated in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Increasing Honesty in Humans with Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation.” In this experiment, participants played a die-rolling game where they could win a monetary reward if they reported each die roll matched a displayed number. Statistically, correct matches could only be possible 50% of the time, but participants reported matches 68% of the time, indicating dishonest reporting. When subregions of the prefrontal cortex were non-invasively stimulated using transcranial magnetic stimulation, participants’ honest reporting increased, realigning with the statistically expected 50%. This finding was not just limited to a laboratory setting. Subsequent studies have shown that when people tell the truth or recount an experience accurately, activity in the prefrontal cortex—specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—increases, fostering a coherent framework for understanding stressful experiences. This, in turn, can result in improved autonomic function and even increased immune system efficacy. Hence, truth telling and accurately representing one’s experiences seem to not only align with ethical considerations but also confer psychological and physiological benefits, suggesting honesty’s importance for both our mental and physical health.

Mechanistic understanding of writing

Understanding the mechanistic link between writing and physiological health might seem counterintuitive, but it’s deeply rooted in the way our nervous system operates. The body and brain are interconnected through this complex network, particularly the prefrontal cortex and the autonomic nervous system. When we articulate our experiences and the associated emotions, it appears the prefrontal cortex can organize these expressions in a way that reduces autonomic nervous system activity when it’s not needed. This process has been associated with decreased anxiety, improved sleep, and reduced insomnia symptoms. Furthermore, the role of the nervous system extends to communication with the immune system—a fact often overlooked. Our immune system not only affects the brain but also receives inputs from neural circuits that reach various organs. Therefore, the writing protocols discussed, which involve exploring and documenting personal traumas or stresses, could feasibly have a positive influence on one’s immune system and even conditions like fibromyalgia. While brain science and immunology have traditionally been separate fields, it’s now evident that the nervous system is a pivotal link between the two. This demonstrates why an act as simple as writing could incite significant changes in mental and physical well-being. The benefits of these practices, as seen in studies, could last for months or even years. The journaling protocol developed by Pennebaker and his colleagues stands out for several reasons. It is cost-effective and flexible, with the intensity of the emotional engagement proving key to its effectiveness. Participants are encouraged to write for 15 to 30 minutes about the same traumatic or stressful experience over four sessions within a month, including facts, emotions, and associations, without a focus on grammar or spelling. This exercise is designed for personal reflection rather than sharing, although if one wishes to share the contents, it should ideally be with a healthcare professional to avoid potentially transferring trauma. Despite its benefits, the immediate aftermath of writing may evoke feelings of sadness, anger, or depression, particularly for those who express themselves intensely. Therefore, it is recommended to create a buffer period after writing before engaging in other daily activities. Additionally, since the writing is centered on potentially traumatic events, it’s advised not to perform this exercise right before bedtime. Ultimately, the protocol is somewhat customizable; one does not have to start with the most traumatic experiences but can approach it with moderately stressful events. This method is not only complementary to other forms of therapy, such as talk therapy or medication but can also accelerate their effectiveness. Nonetheless, if the act of writing engenders overwhelming stress, participants are encouraged to discontinue the protocol. The primary goal is to manage and work through stressful and traumatic events in a way that fosters mental and physical health improvements in a safe and controlled manner.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the transformative power of expressive writing is not to be underestimated. As Drs. Huberman and Conti illuminate, our capacity to reshape our brains and heal from trauma lies in our willingness to confront and articulate our experiences. Regardless of whether you’re a “low express” or “high express” individual, the act of journaling offers a crucial outlet for emotional processing, paving the way for improved mental health and cognitive function. Embrace the pen as a tool for truth-telling and witness the physiological metamorphosis that follows.

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