Stimulating and developing the prefrontal cortex.
When looking at areas of the brain, we view the brain in its entity as a muscle capable of regeneration and improvement with regards to its functioning throughout life. Peak brain development occurs in early infancy; around 0 to 3 years (First 1000 days) and again from 12 to 24 years however, the brain has the ability to change throughout our entire lives. As we are aware; trauma during this developmental period can alter neural pathways creating significant issues which may not show until adulthood.
When we look at specific areas of the brain in relation to trauma changing either function or volume, we find that common issues arise within the temporal (PFC) and frontal lobe as well as in areas such as the cerebral cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and thalamus. Throughout this post; I intend to focus solely on changes within the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and how we can engage and align this area of the brain in order to improve its function.
For information about each area of the brain and how it has the potential to be altered through trauma please visit; https://blog.ptsdresearchuk.co.uk/2020/07/areas-of-brain-and-how-they-can-be.html?m=1
The PFC is the area of the brain which is key and reasoning, problem solving, creativity, impulse control and perseverance. With research showing a well developed PFC can improve life outcomes however trauma induced changes can have a hugely detrimental effect to this area.
Individuals who have strong executive function and a capable PFC show strong levels of impulse control and an ability to delay gratification. Delayed gratification is the ability to put off something perceived as fun or pleasurable in the here and now in the hope to gain something more pleasurable later. An example of delayed gratification would be working before pleasure, staying on task and completing necessary tasks before having fun or relaxing. Those who struggle with delayed gratification will buy or spend impulsively or have fun instead of work (i.e; watching TV instead of studying or working from home).
It is common for trauma survivors to experience difficulties in modulating emotions, impulses and behaviours due to abuse affecting biological and psychological abilities to self-regulate. This can result in an over sensitive fight response or reliance on one of the 4F responses. Children learn to regulate their executive function as they develop however self-regulation issues arise when abuse during childhood causes fear and disrupted attachment. For those survivors who have faced complex interpersonal relationship trauma; The Chronic stress endured can influence and alter PFC even into late adulthood.
Poor functioning of the PFC results in poor impulse control, a difficulty planning or adhering to plans and difficulties with empathy and reasoning. Further neuroscientific research shows that the PFC can be split into three parts. Difficulties do not always arise in all of these areas and at times trauma survivors are seen to be proficient in one area and less able in another (i.e; able to plan but impulsively reacts to stressors or change).
The PFC is split into the caudal dorsolateral, rostral dorsolateral and ventral medial with different functions involved in each. Issues arising from a poor functioning PFC are not required to span across all three categories - although this is just as possible. A trauma survivor could face issues with identifying emotions but have a good level of impulse control.
To balance the PFC, a trauma survivor should focus on each area of the PFC. The caudal dorsolateral area benefits from learning NEW physical exercise or fine motor tasks. This also promotes secretion of dopamine; further aiding individuals mood. Learning NEW information or problem-solving aids the development of the rostral dorsolateral area however using video games for longer than 30 minutes in order to do benefit this area has been shown to be ineffective as such activities have no basis in reality and thus are analysed by the PFC completely differently. The ventral medial dorsolateral area can be further balanced through a trauma survivor having the ability and support to express or identify their emotions, concentrate on their own thoughts and analyse or interpret others behaviour. It should be noted that adequate support is required to work through this.
There are various ways in which you can further stimulate and improve the functioning or balance of the PFC resulting in better control, emotional identification and conflict resolution.
Express gratitude - practicing positivity activates PFC to function better.
Increase executive function by multi-tasking and making cartoons or acronyms to remember things or using your imagination.
Remain positive - write a positive story reflect on the future positively. optimism = dopamine.
Have a good sleep routine - this is connected to memory function
avoid drama - (even others dramas) it fires the amygdala to overreact and sets PFC off.
Show altruism - social and mental activities will activate the PFC
Strengthening and balancing the function of the PFC involves challenging yourself continuously in every task that you do, however over challenging yourself can result in having the opposite effect. With regards to impulse control or willpower, there is only so much willpower an individual will have. Willpower tends to diminish as the day progresses and an individual that has also suffered trauma should be aware of this when working through any PFC strengthening exercises. This is so as to not self blame or flare perfectionistic behaviours which can manifest as feelings of guilt/shame or cause retraumatization. A little by little approach should be considered when attending to PFC exercises, it is common for a survivor of trauma to want to do it all or nothing and so being very strict and controlling your impulses to complete every exercise listed is essential. Research has shown that regeneration of the brain function is possible through adequate support as well as training or brains to function better through balancing the PFC, ultimately leading to the notion; what has been done can ultimately become undone.
Our research group can be found here;
Currently we are conducting research into the causes of trauma. I have included a link to the survey here : https://surveyheart.com/form/5f06e63b3ed8765392fe12d0
If you would be interested in taking part, please feel free. If you would like to share this study i would also welcome you to use the link, many thanks!