Dan Siegel (Part 1): Emotional Sensitivity & Cognitive Override

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In working with clients, I probably utilize, refer to, and even quote the research of Dan Siegel more than any other source; especially his book The Developing Mind; How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, 2nd ed (2012); what one reviewer has called “a tour de force.” The bio on the back book cover reads: “Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is an internationally acclaimed author, award-winning educator, and renowned child psychiatrist. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he serves as Co-Investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, and Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.” Etcetera. Etcetera.

Taking some time off in the last month, I took The Developing Mind with me for rereading. I was so re-inspired by its contents that I decided to devote the next two or three blogs to select themes. From the chapter on “Self-Regulation,” this first blog addresses “emotional sensitivity and cognitive override.” Siegel writes:

“Each of us has a ‘threshold of response,’ or the minimum amount of stimulation needed in order to activate our (nervous) systems. Those with a hair-trigger response mechanism will find life filled with challenging situations. Their brains will frequently fire off messages of ‘This is important – pay attention!’ Those with ‘tougher skins’ will not readily respond with arousal and will be less emotionally sensitive to the same stimuli.

Sensitivity…may be both constitutional and modified by experience. Both variables may also be dependent on an individual’s state of mind at a particular moment in time. We can have times in our lives when our ‘nerves are raw’ and we react quickly to previously innocuous events. When we are preoccupied by something else or emotionally defending ourselves, we can be less sensitive than we might otherwise be. Alterations in our threshold of responding may be an important way our brains regulate emotional responses.

How can a mind alter sensitivity?….By increasing the amount of stimulation (one needs) to become activated, the brain can directly decrease its sensitivity to the environment. Modifications in the appraisal system itself can also decrease or increase sensitivity. For example, if you have recently seen a violent movie with gunshots and murders, your mind may be sensitized to loud sounds and dark alleys. If, upon returning to your car in a dark parking lot, you hear a sudden loud noise, you may be more likely to become aroused and to appraise such a situation as dangerous. If you had just been to a party with a lot of noise and fireworks, your mind would be less vigilant for signs of danger and would be less sensitive to those same sounds in the dark parking lot. Recent experience primes the mind for a context-specific change in sensitivity.

Repeated patterns of intense emotional experiences may engrain chronic alterations in the degree of sensitivity. For example, overwhelming terror, especially early in life, may permanently alter an individual’s sensitivity to a particular stimulus related to the trauma. If a cat scratches and bites a young child, the sight of even a distant cat may evoke a strong emotional response of fear in this individual for years into the future….

Some early experiences that sensitize the arousal system to fire off may never be desensitized. (Persons) may remain in a chronically hypersensitized state. However, specific appraisal of the excessively sensitive general arousal stage can be changed. Let’s look at an example of this “cognitive override” mechanism.

As a young child, a forty-year-old man had been mauled by a dog; in the incident, he lost part of his left ear and sustained deep wounds to his arms and chest. Throughout his youth, he naturally avoided dogs. As a young father, he dreaded the day when his own children would ask to have a dog as a pet. He came to therapy when that day indeed arrived. What could be done? Every time he saw a dog, his heart would pound; he would sweat profusely, clutch his chest, and feel a sense of doom. This panic was once treated with medications, which were effective but excessively sedating for him. The man wanted to get a dog for his children, but he couldn’t live with the fear.

Some might appropriately say that parents should let children know about the limits of what can or can’t be done. They might feel in this case that the father’s need to have a canine-free house should have been communicated and respected. Another possibility–the one that this man preferred–was to try to ‘deal’ with his fears. The original accident had happened when he was two years old. He had little explicit recall of anything from that period….And so his primary form of memory for this event was implicit: He exhibited emotional (fear and panic) and behavioral (avoidance) memories of the accident. Fortunately, he knew about the experience from the stories he had been told by his parents and from his own semantic memory….Seeing his mauled ear in the mirror also reminded him each day that something terrifying had occurred.

This patient’s amygdala was probably exquisitely sensitized to the sight of a dog….(A) preconscious feedback loop involving the perceptual system and the amygdala would have allowed for the fight-flight response to be initiated even before he became aware that he had seen a dog….Once we are hurt, our amygdalas will do everything they can to keep us from allowing it to happen again.

Teaching this man about the nature of the fear response and the neural circuits underlying it was relieving for him. Relaxation techniques and guided imagery with exposure to self-generated images of dogs were provided. Nevertheless, he still had an initial startle response to dogs. A ‘cognitive override’ strategy was then tried. That is, this (man) learned to acknowledge the relevance of his amygdala’s response to the present dog and the past trauma….He then would say to himself, ‘I know that you’re trying to protect me, and that you think this is a dangerous thing.’ What he would say next was what eventually allowed him to buy his children a (small) dog: ‘I do not need to see this sense of panic as something to fear or get agitated about.’ He would then imagine his amygdala sighing with relief, having discharged its duties to warn, and the sense of doom would dissipate. After several weeks of performing these internal override discussions, he felt ready to proceed with the purchase of a pet. Six months later, he and his family were doing well with the new addition to their household.

This example illustrates that even if the sensitivity to particular (triggers) cannot be changed, a person’s response to the initial arousal can be diverted in ways that lead to a more flexible life (bold italics, mine)….This individual’s past trauma led to a rigid pattern in the flow of information processing and energy (the sight of a dog led to massive arousal and the sense of fear). By altering the engrained patterns of information and energy flow, the (man) became more flexible in his behavior, and he was able to move forward more adaptively in his life.” (pp. 275-278)

Next: Dan Siegel (Part 2): Memory Reorganization & Consolidation 

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs

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