Aug. 4, 2022

E382: Neuropsychologists explain HOW to HEAL childhood trauma and addiction

Are you struggling with healing childhood trauma and abuse symptoms? In this episode we are joined by Dr. Caroline Leaf, Dr. Jud Brewer, Dr. Philippe Douyon, and Dr. Anna Lembke.
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Are you struggling with healing childhood trauma and abuse symptoms?

In this episode we are joined by Dr. Caroline Leaf, Dr. Jud Brewer, Dr. Philippe Douyon, and Dr. Anna Lembke. We talk about the impact of creating neuroplasticity in our lives, understanding the brain and how to fully take control of your life. Learning that your identity is not your past, navigating your emotions, how to move through it, and ultimately how to take your life back.

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Michael: One of the things in the lack of control is we seek to find it and unfortunately especially in this society we seek to find it through prescription medication, we seek to find it do things that are not actually to our betterment, through the vice, to the drugs, the sex, the alcohol the things of that nature. Where does control of your own mind really play a role in this?

Dr. Leaf: So, this is also you asking amazingly the good questions. The control is one of those words that being someone in and you can really relate to this and anyone who's listening who's been in a dark place and including and we've all got our stories. When you're in the depths of despair the last thing you feel like you have is control you know and that's often where support from others comes in but then there might be cases where you in a situation which I don't know your full story but just knowing working in years of two people, sometimes there is no support and so if you really are on your own and you can't really see things and in at that moment you do feel complete I mean a child is constantly being used to going to the most things, where's the control day and so that then is a child that will go into adulthood with most likely the coping mechanism to protect one oneself which is you know maybe they had to learn you find back as you say the pain with anything that takes away they pain and then interest into our current society where people stories are no longer really heard except a few environments like, the work I do, what you do etcetera, you go to into the traditional biomedical system of which know I've been part but not in differently obviously as a bit practicing coming from a different angle but the traditional system is one of okay, we'll tell me your symptoms and let's find you a diagnosis and let's give you a treatment, that works beautifully for cancer and diabetes and you know brain tumors and things like that.

When it comes to a complex childhood, where it's been excessive trauma just giving you a label and a medication is not going to fix a problem because you have a whole bunch of these in your head that make you feel overwhelmed and out of control. So, it is a slow process of educating and learning to dive deep retrospectively into your wires mind; the wires mind that in knowing that got you out to where you are now where you know are so in a state of wire mind Michael that you reach out and help others. And so, is a process of empowerment and it's a cyclic thing that happens over time and it can be multiple ways either someone comes in your life and actually starts helping you or you reach that rock bottom point and you managed to actually help yourself and pull out these different ways that will happen but hopefully most people reach.

And according to the research, three quarters of people will actually reach the point that you have where they've gone through complex tumor and we'll get through with lingering effects but those lingering effects do not have to be effects that live with you for the rest of your life because our current medical model messaging is okay or you are the depressed because of a broken brain; your brain is damaged and that's it for life so therefore put need medication to fix it. If you have diabetes, you need insulin, so type one diabetes so you get insulin restores it heals the body. If you have a pathogen like a virus like covid virus we now have antiviral that can start fighting it so we can find like that. When you have a toxic bunch of toxic experiences it's as real as the covid virus – covid virus has made a protein so is this experience it becomes a protein tree structure your brain. So, your immune system is going to factor this just as much as it would fight the covid virus so, this is very deep what I'm saying. Experiences from any stage of your life don't, I wish she go away things they are physical structural protein chemical changes inside of your brain that look like trees this is a thought tree that has lots of roots and branches which are memories. So, memories of the experiences coalesce into a thought structure, so this is a collection of a lot of data of what happened to source over there and the processing and interpretation the different parts what happened, how you've process that and coat anything to interpretation and how that shows up in your signals.

So, when this is dominating when look at last users, we do feel out control and the control comes back in as we realize that point and it's different for everyone and quite different as I mentioned sometimes it's a person that says somebody to read something. You know people have said they've been on a train and they've seen it sign in a subway or someone said something to them at a shop or they just one day just had, I don't know exactly what your revelation was but this is something that shifts and when you get back shift this instead of this there's a little bit of this and then you start coming up and what I've tried to do with my work is help people to do that climbing in a way that doesn't make them go back with an way of understanding because to rewire the networks to take the power out of this and make it small and rebuild healthy new thoughts where you still remember your story but no longer does it control you, you are controlling your story which is evidence in your life.

That's not gonna happen in one day or with a medication; the medication is not going to fix this, that you don't have a brain disease obviously your brain's affected you know I've got a ton of research in my latest book, I do explain this and had images and I show my clinical trials in a very simple way and I have a very simple way of explaining how to do all the stuff I'm telling you but essentially this is not going to, this is not that a cause the calls this in your brain's not the cause it the cause is what happened to you, this is the manifestation. So, the thing happens the mind experiences the experience that goes in the brain and the brain and body show up in a mist way obviously everything you have the mind needs to use the brain experience so, obviously you're going to fit it but it's not the cause, it is the response.

So, as we manage our causes as we identify structure, we concept the causes so we rewire the brain also circle go back to you one of your first questions which was neuroplasticity because of the neuroplasticity to the brain this work telling you will we focused our signals to the store to the root, we reconstruct etcetera daily fifteen to twenty-five, forty-five minutes a day over time and I'll tell you the time in the moment that is rewire the brain.

Neuroplasticity for trauma has which is the main focus and for anything building habits, breaking habits etcetera works in cycles of sixty-three days not twenty-one, not one, not five minutes. The medications like the cycle drugs they're not even medications actually drugs and they drugs said numb your pain or numb those feelings but they're not fixing anything, they're making structural changes in the brain that may make you feel better and may help you cope for a time but they're not going to solve the problem. You know, they may ease it for times that you can face and start dealing with issues but you need to know the side effects and sometimes the side effects are create more problems than what you actually need, now you got more problems brain change damage, problems on top of the original issues.

When it comes to sake traffic it's really important that you fully understand what you're getting into and that you ask your doctors for the document that they should be giving you of exactly what these are, how they work, their the addictive properties because they all addictive and how do withdraw with dual fix and to understand that when as you are going through a process of facing stuff it is painful and knowing that's not gonna help you, you've gotta go through the pain it's called the treatment you effect, you're going to get worse before you get better. I had some patients that let's start this process and this actually one of the stories in my book at make one of my patients in my clinical trial who at day one no identity to boost at long story we short by day twenty-one they were saying things like, I'm not depressed anymore, day one undepressed with the identity, life supporting apart everything you can imagine going wrong. During this work daily for fifteen to forty-five minutes and we can talk about in a minute what it is, by twenty one they were saying things to us when we bought back into the clinic to do the evaluations and saw on the brain blood narrowed everything they were saying I'm not depression, I am depressed because of it's a massive growth then they also said this but I feel more depressed and more anxious and I'm having panic attacks and I'm breathing but it's different. I'm actually feeling human emotions and those are very questions because they starting to see what the pain was from, they had suppressed childhood trauma in this particular cases person who gone to terrible childhood trauma managed to suppress it for all these years and kind of function that was falling apart and because these are volcanic eventually they will explode your life, if you've eventually these things will explode, you can suppress for certain amount of time but they will eventually explode and that's what it happened in as person's life.

And so, they sort of shifting by learning to get control back slowly in these cycles, they started seeing to increase the depression and grieving as an element of control because they said okay, I know I’m depressed because of I can see that what I went through so therefore I should be feeling the depressed that's a very normal human response to those terrible things that are went to childhood or whatever and grieving the loss time and I mean I'm sure you can relate to this Michael so that's growth. But in this society the minute you feel those oh, you sick, there's a disease coming back, you don't have a disease you trying to process life experiences and it will get worse before gets better but then it does start changing and this is why it's so important that you work to be beyond twenty one days so it wants to twenty one days, not twenty one days twenty one days does a major shift we'll bring things up and you'll start seeing the changes and you're start building and you way thinking and said etcetera. But if you don't push on for another forty-two days that new little thought is way too small to and to override this one.

You need the extra energy taken from this and put in so that this becomes nice and big and strong and I'm gonna put two next to each other. So, you can see it becomes nice and strong only when the new thought is nice and strong which takes another forty-two days totaling sixty-three, are you then going to remember your story but you're not gonna be functioning from your story you're gonna be functioning from the new way of thinking and that's that process brings control.



Michael: What I'm wondering is what were some of the things that you were seeing, not only in your own anxiety, but in the research and the studies that you were doing that is tangible, that other people can apply to their life in perhaps a simple way?

Dr. Jud: Yeah. Well, after this decades of work, it gets simpler and simpler. You know, the more you learn, the more ACOMs razors really too, like the simplest possible explanations, usually the right one that has been true over and over and over. So, I started noticing this three-step process and I write about it in the unwinding anxiety book, but basically, it's about the basic ideas if we don't know how our minds work, we can't possibly work with them. So, the first step is being able to map our own habit loops like what's the trigger, what's the behavior, what's the result. If we can't see what the process is, we're gonna be stuck in it, we're gonna be, you know, tumbled by it. So that's actually pretty straightforward. And I have my patients do this at intake. I start listening for these things and then we map these processes out together, it takes 30 seconds. We even have a free habit map or the name we can download from. I think it's just where you can download this PDF, print it out and start mapping out your own habits.

The second step is a little more involved, but it's a critical piece, which is really tapping into this reward system in our brain. I'll give you an example and explain how this works. So, my lab just did a study with our EatRight now app, where we had people who were overeating. We basically put this what we call a craving tool into built it into the app so we could measure the reward value and help people pay attention to how rewarding or unrewarding the behavior was. And the idea is, if you don't see that something's unrewarding, you're gonna keep doing it. If you see that it's not rewarding, you get what in neuroscience is called a negative prediction error, cuz it's not as rewarding as you predicted as you expected and then you start to become disenchanted. You're like, you know, if somebody smokes a cigarette and I have them pay attention when they smoke and they realize that cigarettes taste like crap, they get that negative prediction, error. And so tangibly, I have patients in my clinic, pay attention when they smoke. I have patients who are overeating pay attention when they eat. And I have them mask themselves with each bite, is this more rewarding or less rewarding than the last bite? So, we did this study with this craving tool to eat right now, app. And we found, are you ready for this? It only takes 10 to 15 times of somebody really paying attention as they over eat for that reward value to drop below zero and for them to start changing their behavior. So, it doesn't take long, it just takes awareness. So, that's the second step, anybody can do that. They can pay attention when they're doing the behavior. And I have them simplify it to this, ask yourself a simple question. What am I getting from this? Right. Not thinking, what am I getting from this? But feeling, what am I getting from this? So, the folks in our study, they were feeling when they overeat, it doesn't feel good.

My patients in my clinic, they are tasting what cigarettes taste like cigarettes taste like crap, they start to become disenchanted with them. We just actually publish a study with our smoking app, same thing, you know, where people are, they're becoming disenchanted with the behavior simply by paying attention, so that's tangible that anybody can do that too.

The third step, I think of it as finding the bigger better offer.

So, if our brains are gonna do things that are rewarding and they're gonna stop doing things that are not rewarding, then let's give them something that's rewarding that's not just a substitution for what they just did. I've had plenty of patients who've come to me and said, you know, I quit cocaine, but I substituted exercise and now I over exercised, I'm addicted to exercise, right? The process itself is the problem. It's not certainly the substances can be problematic, but it's when we're caught in the process that those are problematic. I mean, cigarettes are never helpful, but it's not that that opioid themselves, you know, like taking a pain pill is gonna kill somebody. No, it's when somebody's addicted to that. So, we've gotta find that bigger, better offer. And so here. Often, people are taking substances, for example, because they've got these negative loops running in their heads about how they're a bad person or their life's awful. Often people have had really terrible life circumstances, they've had a troubling childhood or their current environment, there's something in there that says, Hey, this is bad I wanna make it go away. And they have that used that substance, they drink alcohol, they use opioids, they do whatever to make it go away. And that has been the biggest bestest offer that they've had so far, yet if they can pay attention and see, oh, this is really not serving me. And we can give them something that's more rewarding that doesn't have those negative consequences, then they win the game. So here, you know, with addiction, for example, it's finding connection. Right. That is so much more rewarding than running to mother's little helper or whatever the helper is, because that helper is only gonna help for a little bit and then it's gonna make us want more and more and more. And then we're chasing that on top of it.

So, kindness, for example, if we beat ourselves up, what is it like when we're kind to ourselves? What kindness feels better than judging ourselves? So there already is an intrinsic bigger better offer. If we're disconnected from community, from family, from friends, finding that connection is a really strong way and that a much bigger better offer. I would say that is the biggest best dis offer of all, is finding those things that are not only better than the substance or the behavior, but also rewarding and fulfilling and generative like where they pay it forward, when we're connected, everybody benefits from connection.



Michael: Can you talk about any kind of framework of what it actually means to be the leader of your own brain?

Dr. Philippe: Yes. I see people all the time where their brains are leading them and what I mean by that is to think about this. When you have, let's say a bad moment in the day like – your friend upset you for whatever reason, right? It's not just that you're upset now at your friend, then you start thinking about how rough your life is and you become upset with yourself then you start thinking about how bad the world is and you know really upset with the world. And it just takes you down this negative sort of spiral and so, the reason that the brain does that is, that first and foremost, its job is to help you to survive, it needs to protect you. And so, it's always looking out for those negative things. Right? Which is not always in our best interest, and so, being the leader that our brain needs mean that essentially using our experiences to influence the way that we think and the way that we act.

And so everything that we do every single day, influences our brain's evolution. Our thoughts influence, our brain's evolutions, the actions we take do so, the people that we surround ourselves with the experiences that we have, and it's really about teaching people to make really conscious decisions daily. So that their brains don't go down this negative route and instead focus on the positive because when we focus on the positive, that also has this tremendous healing impact, not just on our brains, but also on our bodies and as well as on our lives.

Michael: What causes that? Because you hear this all the time where people talk about having control over your thoughts, being positive thinking like this, but why does that actually work? Like – what is happening in that moment and in those processes that lead to this place where actually has impact?

Dr. Philippe: Yeah, so when you think about what's going on in your brain, so when you're having a lot of negative thoughts, right? So the brain, sort of goes into, you really turn on sort of your sympathetic nervous system, your brain goes into fight-flight or freeze mode, right? So, you're operating from a place of really chronic stress and trauma and so you get chemicals like cortisol, which are being secreted and over a long period of time, have a really negative impact, not just on your brain, but also on your body, right?

So a lot of people who are chronically stressed will come to me and say, look, you know, I can't make new memories, I'm having memory problems and that's because something like – cortisol actually causes the neurons, the cells in the part of the brain responsible for making new memories, it causes those cells to die off, right? So, that's a really negative consequence of having negative thoughts.

Now, when you have positive thoughts, right? That causes the release of endorphins, a lot of the feel-good sort of hormones. And so you start really thinking about your life in a completely different way, you start searching for the positive and things and those feel-good hormones not they don't just allow you to feel good, but they help reduce your blood pressure, they help reduce the levels of chronic stress, that way, you're not having that negative impact on your brain and body and it really promotes healing physically emotionally mentally as well as neurologically.



Michael: Where I want to start here with you today, obviously is your area of expertise but most importantly, something very specific is why do you believe that trauma can often beget addiction?

Dr. Anna: Great question. Addiction is many things but one of the things that is a maladaptive way of coping. So the more we have to cope with in our lives the more trauma we have the more likely we might be to turn to substances or addictive behaviors as a way to manage the pain of that experience. Addiction is also potentially and a maladaptive way of creating or replacing the need for human attachment, that is to say that when we are not healthily and appropriately attached to the people around us we might then look to substances or behaviors to fill that vacuum. And in many ways, you know, intoxicants can do that, they can create that; loved for, cared for, warm feeling that we are not getting from the people around us at least for a while. The problem with intoxicants is that they eventually stop working and then they turn on us and then they create more problems than they solved but certainly in the short term I've had many patients describe, their relationship with addictive substances and behaviors as a love affair in essence. So those are two reasons that come to mind.

The other thought that sort of comes to mind is the Animal experiments which are really fascinating and, of course, we're not animals in the sense that we're not rats and mice the organisms on whom, much of these experiments have been performed but we have a lot of the same neural circuits and in fact, our reward pathway is conserved for millions of years and across species it hasn't. You know, my reward pathway is no different from a rat's, reward pathway and what we see interestingly in animals who have become addicted to, for example, cocaine let's say they've learned that if they press this lever, they're going to get a shot of cocaine intravenously essentially animals will continue to press that lever to the point of exhaustion or until they literally die. But if then the cocaine is taken away, the animal will eventually stop pressing the lever for cocaine neuroscientists call that extinguishing the behavior they'll eventually stop pressing because they know no cocaine is forthcoming but if you then administer a violent foot shock, to that animal the first thing, the animal will do is rush to the lever and start pressing it again. So that powerfully communicates that we reflexively will turn to chemicals and behaviors that release, dopamine, serotonin norepinephrine and other feel-good hormones, that our body actually makes as a way to compensate for injury.

Michael: What came to my mind immediately when you said that is thinking about the autonomic responses that we have to stimulus that may be for, you know, survival or for love or for filling of companionship. So when the mouse has his foot shocked again, is that then an autonomic response based on survival mechanisms?

Dr. Anna: So, when you say autonomic response, I know I don't know exactly what you mean by that. If you mean the autonomic nervous system like you guys are parasympathetic and sympathetic. I think another way of talking about that is to say it's a reflexive response it's not something that we choose or will, it's outside even of conscious awareness and it's reflexive in our body just automatically does it. And in that sense, yes, I think that's right.

Michael: Do you see that holds true in your research that eventually it comes to pass that maybe for some of us that thing that once brought us pleasure then in turn brings us pain?

Dr. Anna: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's the great Paradox of addiction that we start out using for fun, or to solve a problem in your case it was to solve the problem of the pain of your traumatic environment, but eventually the substance itself becomes the problem and it becomes a problem in a number of different ways first of all, it stops working over time, our brain adapts and it just doesn't do the job anymore. The other thing is that it can actively turn on us and start to do the opposite of what we intended. So people who use cannabis at night to help them sleep after a while, cannabis can actually cause the insomnia and there are many many different examples of that. In some people, very short period of use will lead to these kinds of paradoxical or counter effects. For other people it may take decades before they get there but I have yet to meet a person who was a regular heavy user of an addictive substance or behavior who didn't eventually get to the place where it stopped working or it turned on them and cause the opposite phenomenon. I want to add one thing and key on a word you said about how drugs became kind of your safe place and one of the things that so appealing about drug, which I think it's important to openly recognize and acknowledge, is that, at least at the beginning, they provide a way that we can control how we feel. So, instead of having to be at the mercy of other people, or things that happen in our lives, here's a thing we can do, or we can take, which immediately improves our own subjective experience in the world and that is a very powerful draw.

Michael UnbrokenProfile Photo

Michael Unbroken


Michael is an entrepreneur, best-selling author, speaker, coach, and advocate for adult survivors of childhood trauma.

Dr. Philippe DouyonProfile Photo

Dr. Philippe Douyon

Neurologist/Author/Online Course Creator/Motivational Speaker

Dr. Philippe Douyon is a Board Certified Neurologist who focuses on improving your health and life by teaching you how to become the leader your brains need you to be in order to overcome the challenges you face. Not only has Dr. Douyon's philosophy helped countless patients with medical, neurological and mental health disorders, but it's the same philosophy that he used to overcome kidney failure, covid, dialysis, and undergo a successful kidney transplant. He is the author of the book, Neuroplasticity: Your Brain's Superpower ( which teaches you how to use your brain's ability to adapt and learn, in order for you to heal and move on from the struggles in your life. Dr. Douyon is the creator of the online course, Take Charge of Your Brain: : A Guide to Making a Profound Difference in Your Health and Your Life ( ). This course has been called a godsend and transformational because it teaches you how to use your brain to create the life you've always dreamed.

Anna LembkeProfile Photo

Anna Lembke


Anna Lembke is professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic. A clinician scholar, she has published more than a hundred peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, and commentaries. She sits on the board of several state and national addiction-focused organizations, has testified before various committees in the United States House of Representatives and Senate, keeps an active speaking calendar, and maintains a thriving clinical practice.

In 2016, she published Drug Dealer, MD – How Doctors Were Duped, Patients Got Hooked, and Why It’s So Hard to Stop (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), which was highlighted in the New York Times as one of the top five books to read to understand the opioid epidemic (Zuger, 2018). Dr. Lembke recently appeared on the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, an unvarnished look at the impact of social media on our lives.

Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence (Dutton/Penguin Random House, August 2021), an instant New York Times Bestseller, explores how to moderate compulsive overconsumption in a dopamine-overloaded world.

Dr. Caroline LeafProfile Photo

Dr. Caroline Leaf


Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist with a Masters and PhD in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. Since the early 1980s she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. She was one of the first in her field to study how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) with directed mind input.

Dr. Leaf is also the bestselling author of Switch on Your Brain, Think Learn Succeed, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, and many more. She teaches at academic, medical and neuroscience conferences, and to various audiences around the world.

Dr. Leaf is currently conducting clinical trials using the 5-step program she developed while in private practice to further demonstrate the effectiveness of mind-directed techniques to help relieve mental ill-health problems such as anxiety, depression and intrusive thoughts. The primary aim of these trials is to make mental health care more affordable, applicable, and accessible worldwide, and to reduce the stigma around mental health.

Dr. Jud BrewerProfile Photo

Dr. Jud Brewer

Psychiatrist / Neuroscientist / NYT best-selling author

Dr. Jud Brewer is a New York Times best-selling author, neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and thought leader in the field of habit change. He is the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, where he also serves as an associate professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences in the School of Public Health. He is the executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare, a digital health company and a research affiliate at MIT. Dr. Jud has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He is the author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind” and “The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love, Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits”.