FCYU097 cover image See all stories from issue #97, Summer, 2009

Your Brain on Pain: How Neglect Can Change Your Brain
Changing Your Brain
John DiLallo, MD

Researchers who study the brain have begun looking at how much we are shaped by our relationships with other people. Starting when we’re small, our brains are formed in part by our attachments to the people who take care of us. Whenever an adult picks up a crying child and holds and talks to him, the child begins to learn how to take care of his emotions in stressful situations.

Over time this learning causes connections to happen in certain parts of the child’s brain. Those brain connections are the ones that will, in the future, allow the child to understand her own emotions, to handle stress, and to feel caring toward other people.

If you didn’t have stable or consistent adults looking out for you as a child then your brain may not have learned as much about how to handle your feelings when bad things happen. The parts of the brain that allow this may not be fully developed yet—like muscles that have not been used enough to grow strong. Sometimes this can make it harder to control negative feelings like anger, sadness, fear, or just general stress.

So part of what brain research shows is how important it is to learn to have trusting relationships with people who help us feel safe. And it is just as important to learn skills to take care of our difficult feelings, especially if the people who raised us didn’t show us how.

If negative feelings stay strong enough for a long time, it’s more likely that a person will develop a more serious problem like depression, bipolar disorder, or panic disorder. Most people who get to this point need psychotherapy or medication to help them start to feel better.

The good news for young people is that you can “teach” your brain the emotional awareness and management skills that you might not have learned when you were younger. Once you learn those skills and develop healthier relationships, your chances of having mental health issues get much lower.

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.