Written by: Greer Kirshenbaum, PhD
Our adult brains are made up of extraordinarily complex circuits of brain cells that allow us to live, think, feel and move. Our mental wellness, success and overall wellbeing depend on healthy brain circuits in a collection of brain areas we call the emotional brain. The emotional brain regulates stress, mood, thinking and overall health.
Neuroscientists have discovered that much of the emotional brain is built very early in life. The emotional brain largely forms in infancy, between conception and about age 3. It’s astonishing that the origins of our mental wellness come from the first few years of life. Throughout infancy, the brain makes an incredible one million connections per second. Moreover, the emotional brain’s connections and how they function are highly shaped by our infant experiences. Amazingly, the experiences and relationships we have in infancy set up our mind, brain and body health for life. By understanding how our early experiences shape our brain, we can also appreciate how we can use tools and practices to make our emotional brain healthier as adults.
I spend a lot of time teaching and supporting expectant and new parents. I teach them how the infant brain develops and how to provide experiences to promote lifelong brain health. Neuroscience has uncovered vast knowledge in the past couple of decades and we now know many ways to nurture the infant brain for lifelong health. This knowledge was not around when many of us were young. As adults we cannot change our early life experiences, but we can understand them to learn more about ourselves and grow healthier emotional brains.
A super flexible brain in infancy is humankind’s greatest superpower. It allows us to customize and adapt our brain to the particular type of world we live in. This adaptability allows humans to live in nearly every type of habitat in the world. Our flexible infant brains are a huge part of our survival. In terms of mental wellness, our infant brains are very sensitive to signals of fear and safety. If, in infancy, we perceive the world as fearful with many potential threats, our brain adapts to know the world as dangerous. The emotional brain develops with a tendency to focus on threats; lack of safety and trust can increase risks for anxiety, depression and poor mental health. If in infancy we perceive the world as safe, our emotional brain adapts to think the world is not dangerous. Brain structures develop with a tendency to focus on exploration and curiosity; this promotes mental wellness.
Our experiences with early relationships have a huge impact on the developing emotional brain. Having help to recover from distress is a huge safety signal in early life; while having no help is a huge fear signal. How did your caregivers respond to your distress? Did they offer support and listen? Did they name your emotions and help you understand your feelings? Did they ignore your feelings and say ‘you’re fine’? Did they dismiss you and say ‘stop crying’? Did they punish you or isolate you when you were upset? It’s important to remember that our caregivers did the best they could with the information they had at the time. This is not about blaming our experience on others; it’s about exploring how our emotional brains work so that we can grow.
Reflecting on the past can give us insight into our adult behaviour and mental health. The great news is that with a lot of practice and dedication we can change the emotional brain areas that were built in infancy and make them healthier. If we grew up with fear signals in infancy, we can engage in psychotherapy, analytic therapy, take medication, learn emotional intelligence, exercise regularly, spend time in nature, eat for brain health, and practice mindfulness, meditation and gratitude. All of these practices can change our emotional brain’s fear circuits, ability to regulate stress, ability to think and focus and overall wellbeing.
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