Interpersonal Neurobiology – The Basics

It has only been in the past 10+ years that researchers have discovered “experience” changes the way neurons fire in our bodies. Just in the past few months, it has been revealed that the genes of infants are altered by trauma. This leads to the possibility that if trauma experience can change our neurons and genes, then why not “positive” experiences can restore our bodies to emotional and physical health. I know as an Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) therapist that my clients, as a result of new emotional experiences, often make substantial changes in their feelings, moods, and behaviors.

Implicit Memory – Current situations trigger past emotional memories. ” When I sit in this big comfortable chair, it reminds me of when I was a kid and I would sit in my grandfather’s lap and feel safe and warm”. Or ” I get so angry when my wife and I fight it reminds me of when I would go to my room and hear my parents yelling at each other.”

Mirror Neurons – nerve cells activate in sympathy and in the same brain location as nerve cells of the person whose actions we are watching. These neurons help us to sense what others intend and help us connect with what the other feels…We resonate with their state.

Emotional Resonance – when two people experience deep feelings and can sense what the other feels. A mutual caring that is exchanged through words, expressions, or tones. One can feel what another is feeling.

What a IPNB therapist does:

1. Initiates and creates emotional safety along with the client.
2. Demonstrates vulnerability through transparency and self revealing.
3. Assists client in moving from “talking about” situations to being in emotional exchange with therapist in the “hear and now”.

Emotional Safety

“People disconnect from their emotional experience, afraid of being overwhelmed, humiliated, or revealed as inadequate by the force of feelings, only to pay the price later in depression, isolation, and anxiety. If affect-laden experiences can be made less frightening in the therapeutic environment–that is, if patients can be helped to feel safe enough to feel–then they can reap profound benefits, for within core affective states are powerful adaptive forces and processes with tremendous therapeutic potential” (DianaFosha, The Transforming Power of Affect, p 13).

The basis of neurosis is this emotional disconnect where the child has to set herself apart from painful experience as a defensive measure. She cannot handle the pain on her own and so must defend against it. This measure sets up a life of emptiness and loneliness, and we all have this to various degrees. Therapists grow up in families with this emotional deprivation and are not immune to the painful consequences. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our clients to heal this internal deficiency. As a result of our familiy origins our neurons in brains and bodies are “wired” in a way where we also maintain this defensive posture, defending against painful implicit memories just as our clients do.

When we treat clients in our familiar ways of not recognizing and living in this emotional world it re-traumatizes them. I had a client years ago who reported to me that his former therapist had angrily directed him to leave the session if he did not stop being angry with her. He was angry because she was blaming him for his father’s shaming behavior saying, “What did you do to contribute to your father treating you that way”? This therapist treatment

We learn at an early age to cut ourselves off from this internal awareness. We do this in order to protect ourselves from experiencing both threats from external sources and pain from internal experiences. Because most children are treated in a way where their emotions are either discounted, ignored, humiliated, or even punished, the child learns very quickly that emotions are off-limits externally, and as a result emotions are off-limits internally. So in order to protect oneself from external threats and being overwhelmed from internal sources, the child constructs defenses. This is done strictly for protection.

The purpose of therapy is to create the emotional safety where the defenses are unnecessary and the client feels safe enough to reveal to the therapist and to herself the core feelings, the deep emotions that have been locked away probably since early childhood. Creating this safety can begin as early as the initial phone contact with the client. The therapist can accomplish this in the beginning by communicating caring, empathy, and respect. This is done by listening to the clients’ story, respectfully setting boundaries, and by acknowledging emotions as well as communicating confidence in the ability to help the client with the painful emotions. So even before the first meeting, the therapist has the ability or the possibility to benefit the client, to establish some trust, and to develop some minimal and yet beneficial connection. When this is accomplished in a substantial way, it sets the stage in the initial meeting to make great progress.

Fosha, internet trauma article: “In AEDP, the goal is to lead with (Fosha, 2000b) a corrective emotional experience (Alexander & French, 1946). The therapist seeks to create a safe and affect-friendly environment from the get-go, and to activate a patient-therapist relationship in which it is clear that the patient is deeply valued and will not be alone with emotional experiences. If this is accomplished, the patient will feel sufficiently safe to take the risks involved in doing deep and intensive emotional work (Fosha & Slowiaczek, 1997). We want to be able to explore self-at-worst functioning from within a self-at-best structuring of emotional experience activated by the here-and-now patient therapist relationship (see the case in Part 2, for an illustration of this principle at work)”.

With more and more safety, intimacy, and enjoyable and pleasant interactions a person learns to change expectations of interactions, even conflictual ones, from dread, failure, disappointment to closeness, confidence of good outcome, relaxation, and enjoyment.

© Copyright 2010 by Christopher Diggins, MA, LMHC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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    April 7th, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    I had fallen from a tree house atop a tall tree when I was six years old and that incident is still fresh in my mind,like it happened just yesterday.

    Although its been 20 years since that dangerous fall that doctors said I survived, it still haunts me and I have grown phobic of heights ever since. This fear reminds me of that day whenever I am on a terrace of a building and I do not go anywhere close to the edge.
    I do want to get rid of this fear and a cousin suggested that fear can be eliminated by overcoming and conquering it. He suggested me to look down from the edge of a talk building’s terrace. I never tried, probably because I am certain I cannot take it!

  • Laurel Vogel

    April 7th, 2010 at 8:39 PM

    wonderful, clear, lucid writing. I like how you’ve worked in the stories with the content. I think hearing the stories helps my neural pathways build new connectors! You’ve found a way to apply a new field of therapy in a highly effective way, and I know your clients are benefiting tremendously from your intention, commitment and work. You are a true pioneer.

  • Sally

    April 8th, 2010 at 7:43 AM

    Great work

  • robyn e

    April 9th, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    Of course! Everything that happens to us in our lives is sure to have an impact on us at some point in time, it is just that everyone has these things manifested in numerous different ways.

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