In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on. — Robert Frost
When discussing the fundamental differences between adaptive and maladaptive behavior, it’s necessary to understand that maladaptive behavior typically emerges as an adaptive response to undesirable stimuli. A behavior or thought process is often considered maladaptive retrospectively, after a period of negative psychosocial consequences have been assessed and significant impairment in functioning has occurred. However, I would submit that every behavioral response is adaptive during the initial stages of trauma and less-than-optimum cognition may have been useful at one time. The brain’s reaction to trauma depends on a variety of genetic and environmental circumstances, but general responses to trauma often involve an inability to emotionally shift past the primary event. “Neurons that fire together wire together” is a neuroscience axiom that emphasizes the impact traumatic events can have on memory. As such, memory influences emotion, and the ability to reconcile an event may vary based on the type of trauma, the intensity of the trauma, and the sensitivity of the individual.
The psychologist Francine Shapiro refers to the concept of adaptive resolution as a functional integration of trauma processing when describing EMDR intervention.* Although she does not claim to reveal the neurological mechanisms involved with dysfunctional memory storage, she does refer to a static-state phenomenon where the brain indefinitely recycles a disturbing event when triggered by various environmental cues.¹ For the sake of conceptualization, I would say that reconditioning the limbic system is another way of thinking about trauma reconciliation. From a localization perspective in neuroscience, the amygdala is considered the brain’s hotspot for emotional reactivity and the hippocampus works primarily as a memory storage component. However, what’s not often mentioned is the limbic system’s role in determining things worth ignoring, since this job is usually outsourced to the brain’s cortical regions. The amygdala, for example, also plays a role in identifying when we should relax instead of being paralyzed with fear. In other words, if all systems in our limbic apparatus are running smoothly, hypervigilance should be countered by due diligence. Problems arise when a significantly disturbing event overrides the regulatory responses of neuroanatomical correlates so that a checks-without-balances effect takes place.
Victims of trauma have described the experience of grief as “a desire to stop time,” while witnessing horrific events or enduring physical abuse has been know to induce a sensation of “everything slowing down.” It should be obvious that the brain is protecting itself by adaptively switching off select regions of activity to focus attention on primary concerns for purposes of securing safety and allowing space for comprehensive introspection. Unfortunately, this well-intended adaptive response can overstay its welcome, and what was once useful can outlive its usefulness … hence becoming maladaptive. Of course, something clearly was moving too quickly or too abruptly for processing during the traumatic event, so it’s only natural for the victim to respond to incoming stimuli with subsequent trepidation. Unfortunately, the world and everything in it continues to move like a whitewater rapid steeped in indifference (this is why the rejoinder “get over it” is considered a tasteless and ineffectual form of motivation).
Incorporating a useful analogy at this point may demonstrate how the body and brain can unintentionally act against its own self-interest. For example, in cases of arthritis and encephalitis, the physiological response to antigens is inflammation. Inflammation alerts the body that a problem exists and ensures limited movement on behalf of the host, but long-term inflammation with arthritis can cause worse problems such as further tissue damage and chronic pain. In addition, seizures, coma, or death can result when the inflammatory response to encephalitis runs rampant. Similarly, behaviors and thought processes that initially serve to safeguard well-being can invariably implode when their expiration date is not realized.
The body is a dynamic system, and the mind is what the brain does. With maladies such as PTSD, depression, or substance abuse, the person suffering may refuse to move, can’t move, or (more often) doesn’t know how to move. Facilitating mental vitality to offset stagnancy is the key to uprooting negative experiences, because the byproduct of persistent engagement leads to improved daily functioning and eventual acceptance via psychologically congruent processing. Incremental change based on subtle realizations can, in turn, reverse engineer the cognitive constipation of traumatization when maladaptive responses that were originally meant to be adaptive are adaptively reconfigured.
In two words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about recovering from unfortunate life events: keep moving.
1. Shaprio, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press
*non-specific effects notwithstanding
Image by Lori Anne Parker-Danley. Thicket, 2015. Gauche and oil pastel on paper, 15 x 22 in.