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Promoting Resilient Responses

The higher structures that help “talk to” and regulate the amygdala—the hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, and prefrontal cortex—are first nurtured and developed during a brain “growth spurt” in infancy (9-12 months through 18-21 months), through:

  • Loving touch and bonding with caregivers
  • Loving, consistent, responsive face-to-face contact with caregivers, (this is often called “attunement” or “face-to-face attunement”)
  • The experience of having our caregivers communicate with us (verbally or non-verbally) in ways that show they notice and understand our needs and feelings (called “contingent communication”) (Siegal, 1999)
  • Having our caregivers respond to our stress in soothing ways that teach us how to sooth our own stress and confirm that the world is a fundamentally safe place (Schore, 2001).

These higher structures develop more fully—and are far better equipped to help the amygdala handle stress—if we have safe, consistent caregiving experiences as babies and children (Schore, 2001). The prefrontal cortex actually learns to send fibers of a chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) down to the amygdala, to sooth it and slow down its reactions to stress (Siegal, 2007).

The process of staying in balance under stress is also much easier if the kinds of threats we face during our early years are short lived, temporary, followed by physical activity (to burn off the adrenaline and other stress chemicals), and surrounded by periods of calm and safety. That gives our stress systems time to rest and “reset.”

View a Full-Page Summary of Balance and Resilience

While our bodies and brain structures are handling stress and threat, so are our minds, emotions, spirits, and ways of relating to others. The processes of attunement and contingent communication may activate mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex that allow us to identify with and imitate the experiences of others. And our higher brain structures—especially those two important areas of the prefrontal cortex (the orbitofrontal and medial)—help us grow in wisdom and maturity, care about others, choose to do the right thing, and figure out what it all means (Siegal, 2007).

Next: Developmental Factors that Increase
Vulnerability to Post-Trauma Effects


The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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