Report on Affect Regulation and Early Brain Development, a psychotherapist’s perspective, day training with Kathrin Stauffer, 7th May 2016

Kathrin Stauffer’s training and earlier career as a scientist showed throughout the day. Her perspective is to decouple neuroscience and psychotherapy in order for the two areas to meet in a clearer and more productive way. Even though we did not engage on a very scientific level with neuroscience, the depth of the knowledge of the field of neuroscience and the implications for us as counsellors and psychotherapists became obvious. In writing up this report I am aware of the technical language you will meet. At the same time, I think, I would not do the content of the day justice if I did not try explaining the relevance of terminology and perspectives.

Kathrin pointed out that neuroscience is interested in the brain i.e., in the physical structure and its function. Neuroscience has its own assumptions and speculations. With Antonio Damasio, Kathrin understands the mind as the function of the brain. The mind is the self-regulating activity of human beings. The mind has the ability to create constancy inside a person and is the non-material entity which allows a person to have the experience of her/himself as an I. While Kathrin talked us through the structure of the brain, she emphasised that “it is very difficult to deduce mental function from brain structure.” She identifies that neuroscience therefore is a reductionist and forward-looking approach and that “neuroscientists may be interested in different phenomena and questions” to our profession.

In contrast, psychotherapeutic theory and practice is interested in the whole person and how a person functions in the complexity of her/his world. Psychotherapy zooms backwards in time, unearths unprocessed or, as Gestalt-therapists would say, unfinished, business and facilitates processing a trauma or completing a gestalt. This means, in our profession we move from the past via the present to the future guided by our clients, irrespective of their brain structure. At the same time, it is useful for counsellors and psychotherapists to know how a brain functions, which parts of the brain do what. That is because in the therapy room we get an insight into a person’s way of interacting with self and others and we can infer from their physiological signs to what area of the brain is involved in the session.

Prompted by the question of one participant “what is meant by affect-regulation?” Kathrin explained how through life experiences we learn to react to stimuli in such a way as to protect ourselves. Habitual reactions are results of our individual way of “being with, and processing, feelings” (Stauffer, 2010, p. 33).  That understanding is in accordance with Alan Shore’s work. At the same time the term affect regulation is used in Attachment theory and defines the process of a carer’s ability to help a baby to cope with her/his feelings.

Kathrin explained how the brain’s function influences the physiology of a person through the connections to the autonomous nervous system, meaning humans have no influence over this. For instance, when humans are excited, eyes are dry and the heart beats fast (sympathetic nervous system). In contrast, when a person is at ease, the heart rate is decreased, the eyes are more moist (parasympathetic system). And everything has its time and place.

Kathrin explained how a person’s way of making meaning of aspects in life influences the vasomotoric cycle i.e., the cycle of rest – charging – expression – winding down and how the brain influences the autonomous nervous system with its sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This points beyond neuroscience. In the therapy room we are alongside those processes with our clients on many levels, including the visceral and/or intuitive level.

We witness our individual clients in their processes. And we can notice our own processes in self-reflection. Kathrin introduced us to the Polyvagal theory by Stephen Porger, which puts forward the view that the physiological responses to trauma may cause the problems for a person rather than a traumatic event itself. The polyvagal nerves run at the sides of our throats. In stressful situations and when a person accesses neither social nor mobilisation strategies, the blood flow to the brain is severely reduced. The person is unable to respond well to a challenge. Hence, rather than brain function dictating a person’s situation, it is the person’s response to a challenge that determines how the brain is being supplied with nutrients and what physiological habits a person acquires for responding to challenges.

Hence, psychotherapy and counselling are always engaged in physical activity. To accompany a person in abstaining from going into the usual habitual combat mood and rather being with the physical sensations and knowing and arriving in the here and now where there is no threat is one of the psychotherapist’s task. Therefore, the understanding of the brain structure and its function is relevant knowledge for our profession but cannot replace psychotherapeutic theories and practice.

In order to relate some of the knowledge we acquired, we engaged in short exercises and gained interesting phenomenological insights into our mental processes, relating to our physical sensations.

Kathrin pondered on the fact that she had not found the right title for her work yet. I felt the day could be summed up with something like Neuroscience meets Body-psychotherapy. It was a bit unfortunate that the title for the day was changed to Neuroscience and Neurosis. This left some participants pondering that they were initially attracted to the training day because of the focus on early brain development but the new perspective shifted the focus to general physiological activities. If you wish to understand more, Kathrin Stauffer’s book Anatomy and Physiology for Psychotherapists. Connecting Body & Soul (Norton: 2010) is worth studying, and more beneficial than the hand-outs which were somewhat limited.

Kathrin is clearly an experienced speaker. She is grounded, solid and clear. Her authenticity and generosity allowed the group to engage and able to ask questions. Thank you, Kathrin, for this rich day.

Doris Prügel-Bennett