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Your Brain on Pain: Healing From a Bad Childhood
Changing Your Life
John DiLallo, MD

For people who have suffered from trauma, abuse, or neglect, there’s good news. When you work on your issues, your brain can make new connections that help you to manage painful emotions. Safe and trusting relationships with therapists and other caring adults can help with this. Likewise, anyone who is having problems with mood swings, fear, or dangerous behaviors like substance abuse can learn ways to take better care of themselves—even if you have never been taught how to do this before.

Trusting relationships with people who care about us help increase our ability to manage our stress and negative feelings—including the terror of trauma. Often as you’re learning to control your response to negative emotions, your relationships will rapidly improve, so there can be a positive spiral effect. Medications sometimes help you work through the painful feelings that might have seemed too big to control otherwise, and many times people can come off medications after a period of emotional work.

Helpful Therapies

There are several ways that psychotherapists can help with pain from your past. Some therapies like CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) help you look at thoughts you have over and over about your trauma and how these might be hurting you. For example, most kids feel like it is their fault when something bad happens, and they may continue to believe this even when they are old enough to understand things differently. CBT can help you look at that self-blaming and remind yourself that it’s not your fault.

Other therapies focus on the emotional and physical sensations that you feel when you think about your trauma. These approaches can increase your self-awareness and sense of control, until you begin to experience your emotions as parts of your life that you can manage instead of uncontrollable events that ruin your life. Some therapists also recommend activities that help your brain stay focused on the present—like yoga, meditation, or martial arts. These can help your mind and body understand that your dangerous experience is now over and that you are now safe.

More and more, scientists realize that the brain keeps changing throughout our lives. The parts that got stalled or hurt can come back to life.

Dr. John DiLallo is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with over 10 years’ experience working with children and young adults. He is the director of the Psychotropic Medications Unit at New York City Children’s Services, and he practices clinical psychiatry at the Hallowell Center in Manhattan.

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