The brainstem is developed, soothed, and repaired through experiences that are rhythmic, repetitive, relational, and somatosensory
Bruce Perry, MD, PhD
Children who experience trauma often struggle to regulate their emotions and calm themselves. Their nervous systems are accustomed to threat and fear. Parents who are abusive or neglectful negatively influence the way their children’s brain and nervous system develops.
Although the manifestation of trauma in the body is a phenomenon well-endorsed by clinicians and traumatized individuals, the neurobiological underpinnings of this manifestation remain unclear.
A traumatised child will be hypervigilant, jumpy and frightened. They learn that the world is a dangerous place and that those meant to protect them often hurt them instead.
Rhythmic, Repetitive, Relational, and Somatosensory
The brainstem is developed, soothed, and repaired through experiences that are rhythmic, repetitive, relational, and somatosensory (Bruce Perry, MD, PhD).
The brain develops from the bottom up and the inside out (Perry) and the brainstem is the first part of the brain to fully develop.
It’s the bottom-most and inside-most part of the brain.
This part of the brain is really coming together in utero and shortly after birth…when babies are getting a lot of what? Rhythmic, repetitive, relational, somatosensory experiences.
Floating in a cushy bed of amniotic fluid while mama walks is HIGHLY rhythmic, repetitive, relational, and somatosensory. Every part of baby is having a deep sensory experience while being completely enveloped by amniotic fluid.
And how about the always-present beat of mama’s heart? The average human heart rate is the perfect tempo for regulation!!!
Emotional regulation using somatosensory responses
Somatosensory responses calm the ways the lower brain is responding to a perceived or real danger or has been triggered, (or reminding) the lower brain of a previous terrifying experience.
Here are a few suggestions for helping a child become regulated:
- Gentle massaging with or without lotion
- Sipping cold water
- Music (soothing with a steady beat)
- Drumming, clapping
- Tapping (bilateral stimulation – alternating from one side to the other)
- Martial arts
- Skating, sledding, skiing, snow boarding
- Sleep hygiene
- Walking, running, biking, exercising
- Singing, rapping
- Animal-assisted therapy
- Plush/stuffed animals to hold, surround child
- Creative arts: painting, coloring, modeling clay, playdoh or slime
- Breathing exercises
- Gardening, playing in the dirt
- Swimming, water play
- Taking a bath
- Essential oils
- Jumping (skipping robe, jumping jacks, trampoline)
- Weighted blankets, wrapping tightly/swaddling, holding/hugging child
- Balancing on beam, line on floor, on one foot then the other
- Resistance/stretching bands
- Yoga poses
- Playing in sand
- Tearing paper, creating and throwing paper balls
- Playing catch
- Pushing/lifting something heavy
- Yoga ball
- Push-ups, sit-ups
- Punching bag
- Playing in/hiding in empty box
- Curling up under a blanket
What does the somatosensory cortex regulate?
Optimal arousal is the level of arousal which matches the environment and activity. Sometimes it’s called ‘Just Right.’ At night time, optimal arousal is low enough to facilitate sleep. At school, optimal arousal is when a student can focus and attended. In the playground or at a party, it’s normal for optimal arousal to be a bit higher as there’s more movement and usually excitement.
Regulation is the ability to change arousal to match the environment and the activity. Essentially it’s the ability to adjust to an optimal level of arousal. Throughout the day the brain and body are constantly doing things to increase and decrease arousal levels in an effort to regulate. Sometimes it’s called self-soothing.
Some children (and adults) have more difficulty regulating themselves than others. This could include difficulty with sensory regulation and/or emotional regulation. Difficulty with regulation is often reported in autism, ADHD and attachment disorders.
Dysregulated is the opposite of regulated. So, it is when an individual is not in an optimal state. What is important to remember is that this doesn’t always mean that their arousal is too high. Often we think of dysregulation as angry or out of control behaviour. It’s important to remember an individual may freeze or dissociate. These responses are also indicators of dysregulation.