Healing From The Inside Out

» Posted by on Jul 19, 2013 | 13 comments

Healing From The Inside Out

We all know that person, we might have even been her. The one who’s going to quit her job and travel the world, the one who’s going to open her own shop, go back to university, or finally write that book…but somehow it never actually happens. 

Some of you might remember the Joshua Kadison song that was on the radio way back in 1994 called “Picture Postcards from LA”. It tells the story of Rachel, a singer who wants to move to Los Angeles and make it big:

“She’ll even buy a ticket and pack her things to leave
Though we all know the story, we pretend that we believe
But something always comes up, something always makes her stay
And still no picture postcards from LA.”

Rachel isn’t a coward for not following her dream, and those of us still planning that book or that big trip around the world aren’t lazy or ‘all talk”. We’re just being taken over by our lizard brain.


The Reptilian Brain

courtesy Neil Slade

courtesy Neil Slade

The amygdala, or ‘lizard brain’, is a primitive structure in the base of the brain responsible for the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. This is where associations are made between stimuli and the pleasant or aversive events they predict.

For example, if your pet always hears the sound of the can opener right before food appears, this sound become associated with a positive event and will begin to produce a pleasant feeling – a process known as classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs).

The amygdala is the home of the fight/flight response, whose job it is to warn us of danger, allowing us to escape from predators and protect ourselves from harm.

Experiments show that the greater the emotional arousal we experience following an unpleasant event, the stronger our memory of that event will be. An example of this would be if someone snaps at you and this causes you anxiety, you are more like to remember this event than someone who was not upset by being snapped at.

Research also shows that heightened amygdala activity often occurs following trauma during childhood. This can lead to a breakdown in the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for thinking, planning, decision-making and social behaviour. This interruption impacts our emotional processing.


Taking Back Control

“Survival and success are not the same thing.” – Seth Godin

Once an external events triggers an unpleasant memory, lizard brain steps in. Our capacity for rational thought is reduced and it can feel like we’re right back in the original unpleasant event.

This is not a weakness, or a matter of willpower. The lizard protects us from perceived harm, and it doesn’t like us to do anything out of the ordinary where the outcome can’t be predicted. This is especially true of amygdalas that were overstimulated early in life.

So when we think about leaving our familiar patterns to travel, go into business or return to study, our lizard starts shouting at us: ‘Are you out of your mind? What if it doesn’t work out? What if you make a fool of yourself? You don’t even know what you’re doing, it will be one giant disaster. Just stay where you are and don’t move!’

courtesy eofdreams.com/

courtesy eofdreams.com/

Sounds familiar right? The good news is that our brains have a great capacity for changing old patterns, a process known as neuroplasticity. This refers to changes in neural pathways which occur due to modifying our behaviour and environment.

There are things we can do to get the lizard out of the driver’s seat so our thinking brain can function rationally again. For some situations, this can be as simple as recognising the trigger and reframing it.

If you automatically become defensive when someone is angry, take a breath and see if you can become curious about what’s happening, rather than reacting automatically. Try to name the emotion that’s coming up for you – it might feel like resentment or frustration but underneath there might be fear or sadness.

If the lizard automatically labels the angry person as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, can you suspend judgment and become an interested bystander instead? What might be going on for that person?  Is it really about you?

Bringing your conscious awareness to the situation builds new neural pathways that allow us to stay more in control of our responses. We build strong neural pathways through repetition – this is how we learn new languages, musical instruments, sporting skills etc.


Deeper Changes

I’m currently halfway through training for my Certificate in Art therapy. One of the activities covered in detail is a technique known as ‘guided drawing’, and I’m lucky enough to be training with one of the leading practitioners in this field. 

I recently decided to go and have a session myself as a client.  Before I did this, I wasn’t really ‘getting it’. But as a client, I experienced how trauma stored in the body can be shifted and released by this amazing approach. 

The hippocampus is the structure in the brain that passes messages between the cortex and the amygdala. In simplistic terms, guided drawing aims to help the hippocampus function effectively so it can relay accurate messages needed to switch off a panicked lizard.

Guided drawing allows a person to witness their story and makes their inner tensions visible. The drawing focuses more on the actual movements the client makes on the paper than the appearance of what they draw. The rhythmic movements allow the body to move out of an immobile hyperaroused state and realise that the traumatic event is over, they are safe and they have survived.

Until this happens, discipline, willpower and positive thinking will only take us so far. Trauma is stored in the body and it needs to be released before the lizard will stop sounding the old alarm in the present moment where there is no actual danger. Healing in this way does not require us to change anything on the outside, the process occurs internally and our external lives change accordingly.

Below are some of my drawings, all done with eyes closed.

art therapy guided drawing art healing

The presence of an unpredictable adult in my childhood home caused me to always be on guard, scanning the environment for danger and trying to be as invisible as possible to stay safe. As I drew the feelings in my body associated with this, I was asked to make different movements, for which I chose different colours.

My drawings went from a black and red combination of circular and slashing movements to light coloured movements up and outward from the page. The difference I felt in my body was huge, from weighed down and trapped to released and flowing.

Going Within

I’m planning to explore this art therapy technique further, both as a client and as a trainee practitioner. Since I’m in my hibernation phase during winter, this is the perfect time for me to go within and trust the process. 

My lizard has gotten in the way of many physical activities I’ve tried to pursue, such as scuba diving, along with some of my plans for my business and my writing. So I’m creating a plan of action for when Spring arrives, and in the meantime I’ll be using this process to make friends with my lizard, because I want to write that damn book…and later I would dearly love to offer this treatment to others to help them heal from the inside out.


  1. Wow, this is a really great article! I also teach about the effects of positive thinking on the brain and the way you have written it is so accessible and I love the way you have linked it to art therapy

    • Thanks so much Sam, glad you enjoyed it! Great to hear you’re doing similar work.

  2. This is a really detailed article with lots of intriguing tidbits. I’m fascinated with the idea of the guided drawing. It looks so interesting – I wonder how you read the meanings of your doodles?

    Sarah @ A Cat-Like Curiosity
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    • Hi Sarah, thanks for your encouragement. To answer your question, the doodles don’t really mean anything, it’s the movements you make when drawing them that are the therapeutic aspect of this approach. Ultimately it’s the person who does the drawing who interprets any meaning relevant to their own lives, often in the form of metaphor.

  3. It’s amazing to recognize how many decisions we make “automatically”, (via the lizard brain) – all in the interest of self protection. I really enjoyed reading about your experience and skill with the art therapy exercises, too, and I’m sure your clients are going to experience big shifts too. xo
    Cindie recently posted…Comment on How to Develop a Mindfulness Practice Today by CindieMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Cindie, I’m really looking forward to using this with people and seeing the transformations that result!

  4. Leanne, this is a truly inspired post, and I love how you’ve managed to bring neuroscience and hard facts into a field that can sometimes get… a little fluffy, shall we say? (Not that there’s anything wrong with fluffiness – but there are a lot of people in that space, and far fewer talking about neuroscience aspects!)

    I’ll definitely be sharing this one with my tribe too :-)


    Tanja @ Crystal Clarity recently posted…How to use online communities to promote yourself effectively (without pissing people off)My Profile

    • Thanks so much for sharing Tanja – yes I really had to draw on my foggy memory of studying neuropsychology many years ago for this one! I’ll be doing more research into this area, it fascinates me.

  5. The presence of an unpredictable adult in my childhood home caused me to always be on guard, scanning the environment for danger and trying to be as invisible as possible to stay safe.

    I was brought up in the same environment but had no idea on how much impact this had on me throughout life until I began to meditate three years ago.

    It was only when I collapsed into exhaustion in mid life did I realize that I had spent my whole life in this mode.

    My coping mechanism was to work really hard to have all systems in place so that nothing bad would happen.

    Letting go of needing to control future outcomes (my way of trying to stop anything bad from happening) has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.
    Priska recently posted…10 steps to take you toward your mid-life reinvention.My Profile

    • Yes Priska, I so hear you. I’m actually starting a meditation class next week. It’s the number one weapon for retraining an over active amygdala from what I can tell. Letting go control of things we can’t actually control is a huge step, good on you for recognizing the need and acting on it x

  6. This is absolutely fascinating. I would LOVE to find a guided drawing practitioner in my area and give this a try. The transformation in the sequence of drawings you made is captivating and almost eerie in its palpable energy.

    Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information with us. I’m thrilled and can’t wait to learn more!

    Best of luck with your studies, darling. <3

    • Thank you Paige, I hope you do find someone and give it a go – I was skeptical at first until I tried it myself. I can’t wait to finish learning about it and start practicing!

  7. This all makes so much sense, especially how you’ve written it out in an understandable way. So thank you for that! I’ve been wrestling that lizard in my head lately; she doesn’t want me to write a book or create anything new! She doesn’t even want me to think about it! Ugh. Maybe if I say, “Hey there little protector. Thank you for looking out for me, but I’ll be okay. I’m going to go ahead and work on this book/create this new thing. All is well.” Maybe that would help!
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