Brain Development & Mental Health

Here is a fascinating story of how our brain develops, and how this influences our mental health:

The infant and child’s developing brain is “experience sensitive.” By this I mean that the physical wiring of the brain, which determines how we respond to stress, is laid down very early in life and is affected by negative early experiences such as emotional neglect and trauma.

A baby is incapable of regulating its own emotions and soothing itself. Distress causes the release of stress hormones, such as adrenalin, noradrenaline, and cortisol from the “anxiety generating” (fight or flight) parts of the brain. These brain regions are there to warn us of danger and ensure our survival.

A baby is totally dependent on its carer for the soothing, calming, and reassurance which turns off the fear and anxiety centres in the brain. Over time, a child’s brain can become wired to do this for itself. But it only happens through the repeated calming and soothing actions of the mother or carer. Physically, what happens is that nerve pathways grow, from the more advanced thinking and understanding parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe). They reach down to the fear centres and slow them down, which helps to calm us.

Repeated experiences of distress, with poor soothing, leave a child with a brain that is wired to have a stronger fight or flight response and a weaker ability to calm down. This sets the scene for being vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems later on in life.

Appropriate medication can play a very important role in helping to ease mental health conditions. It can often help a person to find their footing in order to explore other ways of improving their quality of life. For example, there are practices that can directly help to rewire the brain. Mindfulness and approaches which pay attention the bodily-felt experience can help. Mindfulness practices have been shown to strengthen the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the fear centres of the brain. So at any stage of life the capacity to regulate your emotions and soothe yourself can be strengthened.

DR BELINDA DERMAN

I am a psychiatrist in private practice in Tokai. I see people for psychotherapy and I treat a range of mental health problems, including: depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and adult attention deficit disorder. Read more about my approach.

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Physical Address: 13a Keyser River Drive, Tokai Business Park, Tokai
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Email: drbelindaderman@gmail.com