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Suffering and Resistance to Change

Traumatic stress: effects on the brain J. Douglas Bremner, MD, Clinical research© 2006 LLS SAS. All rights reserved

The Salience Network helps us navigate important tasks, and high stress and trauma can impair parts of this network. The right Anterior Insula (rAI) is integral to cognitive control, and when it is inhibited or damaged we experience "lower cognitive control and weaker performance on cognitive control tasks." How do we experience lower cognitive control? In many ways, including the ability to manage our thoughts, or chose the most beneficial response. So what does this have to do with our spiritual life and suffering? 1

Suffering is normal part of life, sadly. Some weather it fine, others descend into anger, denial, or depression. Within the context of classical Christian teaching on suffering we are told that we must let this suffering "perfect its work in us." In other words, we must not resist the suffering, but be thankful for it and allow it to challenge and change us more and more into God's image. What is happening here and why must God use suffering to change us?

Trauma changes the brain. When regions of the brain are damaged or inhibited by trauma, the effects are long lasting. These impairments color the way we process experiences and damaged areas are resistant to change. That means our interpretation of events and interpersonal exchanges become more permanent. Even if we admit that the brain can restructure itself, that it is plastic, that doesn't mean that changing these damaged areas is easy. These patters are resistant to change. I propose that this is why God does not always save us from suffering and why He permits us to endure the consequences of our bad decisions. To bring change to these inhibited areas of the brain, considerable pressure has to be exerted. The greater the resistance to an established pattern of maladaptive behavior and belief, the greater the pressure needed to alter it.

When we encounter spiritual adversities and accept them as agents of change sent by God, and through prayerful introspection and spiritual guidance by spiritual mothers and fathers more advanced in their spiritual life, the damaged or inhibited behavior and its remedy are applied as a salve to the soul. And since "spirituality is also biological" (as we say in Deep Recovery) these remedies are applied like a salve to the impaired part of the brain, stimulating growth or change according to the prescribed behavior.

This is why pride, for example, might require spiritual remedies like serving others, fasting from criticizing others, or accepting injustices without recrimination or even mounting a defense. if we have inordinate, inflated pride in a certain area of our life, and it is a trauma defense of some sort (something a spiritual father or mother, a spiritual director or pastor or therapist might identify) accepting an injury silently puts pressure on this particular behavior (and neural network) to change. But it is painful. The painfulness of it, and the resistance are signs that God is healing your soul and a part of your brain that was damaged or impaired by an offense against the divine nature, which is trauma.

When you experience the pain of spiritual discipline or adversity, ask God what it is in you that He is trying to change. Seek godly counsel, Measure your responses against the virtues, especially love and humility. Ask God to help you endure this "restructuring" of your soul.

.1 Adapted from Bressler, S. L., & Menon, V. (2010). Large-scale brain networks in cognition: Emerging methods and principles. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 277–290.

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