the brainstem survival

I thought I would share two principles from Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who has studied trauma. These principles can help us understand the brain of a person who is traumatised. They are just two of his fundamental principles that I will explain and illustrate with stories from the kind of children that we work with in our centre. I hope it helps bring you and your loved ones freedom!


Principle from Perry No 1: The brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion, such that all incoming sensory input first enters the lower part of the brain.

I see the frustration of this with children who find themselves running away at school and at home. I know children who find themselves told off for years until we have become involved. I have had to explain to many Headteachers and teachers that children who have been consistently abused are not able to understand themselves why they react like this as it is often a brainstem reaction which has meant that the need to flight is stored in their body and has taught their brainstem to react at the slightest sense of danger.

These professionals needed to know that the brainstem and diencephalon are incapable of conscious perception. They thought these children were being naughty and so this neuroscience information has radically changed their view of these hurting children and this has caused changed behavior and created more empathy rather than rejection.  I usually explain to the young clients themselves about the brainstem being the first place to react and how it stops the higher level brain parts functioning until the cortisol has lowered and they feel safer. They usually understand this information and feel more emotional stability because the shame decreases about their behaviour as they were often embarrassed that they did things that their higher rational brain couldn’t understand or justify. The children are then able to learn to recognize their initial feelings of panic and can often self soothe in the classroom context. This one principle has changed the feelings of powerless, stupidity and shame in many young children into feelings of empowerment and ability.

Principle no 2: Neurons and neural systems are designed to change in a use dependent fashion. As we know that many of the traumatised children have experienced chaotic, unpredictable experiences and home, we know the importance of the simple things that we do in our therapy centre such as the beginning and ending rituals. We have a feeling tree and the children always walk up the stairs and have a moment to reflect on their feelings that week and place a colour apple of the tree and at the end they have a similar experience. This repetitive experience offers some stability and a sense of boundary, safety and containment for them as they begin and end the work of the session. We also introduce new experiences to the children. For example I have always worked with a lot of people who have been sexually abused and they often seem to have a huge aversion to anything which is too sensory on their hands and they often have excema and irritable skin. As these abuse memories are locked in their physiology and memory, they have not been able to re-programme their brain with new sensory experiences due to avoidance. When these senses are stimulated they cause neural reactions to enter the brainstem, the neurotransmitter networks send connections firing throughout the rest of the brain and these messages are organized into a response that is dependent on experience, so I have available things such as foam, wet spaghetti, slime and clay which, because we create a sense of safety they feel able to explore and they are able to help activate parts of the brain that would otherwise not be activated. This availability to use the sensory equipment in a repetitive way allows their brainstem to reorganize. It’s important to facilitate them to have frequent usage as this can create a new neural pathway which is positive rather than negative and can help stop the sensory feelings as a trigger.

Hope this helps with more understanding!

Freedom is worth fighting for….


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