Rerouting is Resilience
In last week’s blog post, Neuroplasticity: Evidence of Resilient Brains and My Father Broke My Brain, I wrote about how abuse modifies the physical structure of the brain. Those modifications help the child to get through the abuse. But later in life they may do the exact opposite in a world that is not as dangerous.1 Although I would argue that the world is not a less dangerous place. It is merely that the danger is not focused solely on one person as it is in an abusive environment.
The brain becomes physically hard-wired for danger, and that it does not go back to what it could have been once the dangerous stimulus (abuse) is gone. Remember, there are only two major developmental stages when the brain goes through changes.2 One is growth, and the other is pruning of excess synapses. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t teach yourself differently.I think when we (the general community) talk about resilience, it isn’t the physical modifications that our brains go through to protect us. It is what we teach ourselves to overcome the physical modifications of our brain that is resilience.
I have written about my armor before, but even I didn’t realize the distinction between physical modifications and learned resilience. I think that is a significant distinction. I believe resilience occurs or can occur right around adolescence. That is when I had some significant shifts in my thought processes.
I have not had an fMRI or anything of the sort, but based on what I have read, I am sure that my brain developed as other abused children’s brains did. With that assumption, then my brain modified itself to be the first line of defense against the abuse.
My brain became a castle. Its sole purpose was to keep what was inside (me) safe so that I could get to the next stage of development.
That next stage of development occurs around adolescence. This is when the brain is pruning. It is removing synapses that it doesn’t need or rerouting others for efficiency.3 Your brain is Marie Kondoing itself. The brain is cleaning house.
I wasn’t just cleaning house; I was remodeling. I took everything down to the bones and started to rebuild. To do that, I had to question everything that I had grown up with. And then as I rebuilt, I had to figure out if anything that I had torn out could be repurposed. The challenge was that I was trying to do while still in an abusive environment. My castle was no longer working as a defensive structure alone. I had to go on the offensive.
Learning Resilient Skills
To go on the offensive, I became the knight that left the castle to battle on my behalf. A knight needs armor. My armor was my learning resilience. To build resilience, I had to identify what skills I would need to fight in the outside world.
One of those skills is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is “a state of extreme alertness…you are always on the lookout for hidden dangers, both real and presumed.”4 Not sure if you have ever experienced hypervigilance? Well, have you ever walked to your car late at night, and not many people are around? And you found yourself looking around more, your heart rate increases, the slightest noise is a cause for concern? That is hypervigilance.
I developed that skill so that I could defend myself. At the very least, I could prepare myself for whatever abusive onslaught I would be walking into. I am like that all of the time. Still. To this very day. I think that is one of the worst feelings that abuse leaves survivors with, never feeling safe.
Another skill that I had to develop was facial recognition. Growing up, I didn’t understand facial expressions. I didn’t understand the emotions that people were showing on their faces. Learning is a crucial developmental step for children to learn from and interact with their peers.5
I remember being confused when I would watch people interact. How did they know how or what to do? As I wrote in My Father Broke My Brain, child sexual abuse affects a child’s facial recognition ability. I didn’t know why I was different (I felt broken) only that I was. And that differentness (brokenness) meant that I was at a severe disadvantage.
I couldn’t be at a disadvantage, not if I were going to survive. To get over that disadvantage, I used to sit in front of the small mirror in my room and practice facial expressions. I would study actors on television, look at pictures in magazines, watch strangers, and then go home and practice their expressions. I was teaching myself a skill that I lacked. And that was another part of my armor.
I am not going to write too much about being an introvert because there will be future posts going into some serious detail about it. I want to mention it here because I think being an introvert, above all else, gave me the ability to develop resiliency.
An introvert’s ability to be inwardly focused gave me the power to identify what skills I was missing so that I could build my armor. Introvert’s prefer being alone, which gave me the time that I needed to work on myself and figure out how I could escape the situation that I was in. Being an introvert was the key to my survival.
Rebellion & Resilience
I have written about how I was a terror as an adolescent. My level of rebellion really was on an epic scale. I was that way for a reason. Not that I knew any of what I am about to write here, but there was a reason; resiliency.
I have often thought of adolescence as the time in a person’s life when they are testing the boundaries of the world in which they exist. Adolescence is about becoming an adult, keeping what you want and discarding what you don’t.
Every single day that I would wake up in that environment, I would have to prepare myself for leaving the relative safety of my room. My hypervigilance would become activated, listening to the sounds coming from downstairs. Who was up? What were they talking about? Was my name mentioned? If so, under what context? Good or bad? Indifferent?
Up and out of bed, I would wrap myself in my armor, covering it with my cloak of teen rebellion and anger. That way, they would never know how much armor I had on underneath. It was a bit of a ruse—nothing to see here, just your typical angry, rebellious teenager.
Behind that seemingly typical rebellion was a resilient brain that was working away on developing the roadways detouring around the modified parts of my brain. I pushed so hard to identify what roadways to build through identifying what skills I needed. Then I would learn those new skills, and my brain would build what I now refer to as my Resilience Superhighways.
- Brenda Patoine. “The Abused Brain Neural Adaptation, Resilience, and Compensation in Childhood Maltreatment.” Dana Foundation. October 9, 2018. https://www.dana.org/article/the-abused-brain/. Accessed July 31, 2020.
- Johanna Bick & Charles A Nelson. “Early Adverse Experiences in the Developing Brain.” September 3, 2015. https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2015252. Accessed August 6, 2020.
- Duncan Banks. “What Is Brain Plasticity and Why is it so Important?.” The Conversation. April 4, 2016. https://theconversation.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-and-why-is-it-so-important-55967. Accessed August 3, 2020.
- Matthew Tull, PhD. “Hypervigilance With PTSD and Other Anxiety Disorders.” Very Well Mind. July 27, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/hypervigilance-2797363. Accessed August 12, 2020.
- Charline Grossard, Laurence Chaby, Stéphanie Hun, Hugues Pellerin, Jérémy Bourgeois, Arnaud Dapogny, Huaxiong Ding, Sylvie Serret, Pierre Foulon, Mohamed Chetouani, Liming Chen, Kevin Bailly, Ouriel Grynszpan and David Cohen. “Children Facial Expression Production: Influence of Age, Gender, Emotion Subtype, Elicitation Condition and Culture.” Frontiers in Psychology. April 4, 2018. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00446/full. Accessed August 12, 2020.