Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey: Benefits of Co-regulation for Children and Parents in Play Therapy

Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S


You may be asking what’s the big deal about integrating co-regulation with parents and their children into the treatment process? Does it really make a difference if therapists integrate parents into the treatment process?   YES, yes, and a resounding – yes!! Children whose parents can effectively help them co-regulate their emotions demonstrate prosocial skills, positive self-esteem, and effective self-regulation.

What “fires” together “wires” together.  Infants are born with immature neural pathways for regulating emotions and behavior and the use parents to help them create strong neural circuitry for emotion- and self-regulation. If you’ve ever watched the Still Face Paradigm videos by Dr. Ed Tronick (check  it out here on YouTube), you’ll see how young children seek out and use their parents to help them effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors. As parents are able to be attuned at the psychobiological levels with their child via mirror neurons and resonance circuits (Badenoch, 2008; Seigel, 2011; Siegel and Hartzell, 2003), this sets in motion a synchronization between neural systems in the parent and the child. As children grow and develop, co-regulation with parents will eventually lead to self-regulation for the child.  Self-regulation helps to promote resiliency.

Creating resiliency in our children is the “golden ticket” for their success in life. Resiliency refers to our ability to “bounce back” after adversity and continue to grow and thrive despite adversity. When parents help children create early neural wiring for regulating emotions through effective co-regulation, this helps children to develop the ability to regulate their own emotions. This co-regulation requires that parents tolerate their own emotional distress in the moment to help their child use them to be soothed and calmed.  

Resiliency helps to maintain homeostasis in our body, and that promotes health and wellness across our life span. When our body is frequently assessing threat and release those neurochemicals, such as cortisol, into our bloodstream, our body will seek to find ways to resolve, heal, reduce the internal threat and survive. Here’s a medical example- when our body assesses a virus, then it will set in motion a process to attack the virus to rid our body of the “invader.” While our body is fighting off the virus, such as a cold, we’re usually experiencing a runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, and are not functioning at our most optimal because we need rest to help our body to do its work of fighting off the virus. We are not in homeostasis when our body is fighting off the invader within. 

The same is true emotionally. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, then we often tend to have difficulty concentrating, problem solving, and being patient or willing to try new things. We are not in homeostasis. When we feel good and are able to regulate our emotions, we act in ways that demonstrate our “best selves” while we are in a state of homeostasis- our behavior is calmer, we can think more clearly, our memory is better, our ability to problem solve is intact, we are more patient, we have positive beliefs about ourselves and our relationships.  Children are the same – their ability to self-regulate through such things as taking turns, being empathic, sharing and engaging in give and take interactions, performing better in school, and engaging in positive, healthy peer relationships helps to improve their overall sense of well-being and create a positive sense of themselves. It’s impossible to maintain 100% perfect homeostasis all the time. Our goal is to maintain a balance of homeostasis within a range of healthy balance to navigate life’s daily stressors more often than not. 

As a mental health professional working with children and youth, it’s important to recognize the importance of parents in the treatment process. I realize the sometimes other adults act in the “parent” role, such as grandparents, aunts and/or uncles, foster parents, and even day care providers. For the sake of clarity here, when I refer to “parents” in this article I’m referring to an adult in the caretaking role for children and youth. When parents sense that mental health professionals won’t judge them, then they’ll feel more comfortable with you. When they feel accepted and valued, they can begin to allow themselves to be vulnerable with you. This therapeutic safety with parents allows the ability for you to help them use the strategies you are recommending to them. Think about some of your more challenging parents – what are some things you can do to “plant small seeds” of trust? One of the most effective ways to do that is to be attuned to them in a compassionate, non-judgmental way – within professional boundaries – show them that you care about them as people – human to human.

Parents are human too, so children don’t need their parents to be perfect. Children need their parents to help them more of than not within the context of their attachment relationship. Parent need to be “good enough” not perfect.  Thank goodness!!  As mental health professionals working with children, youth and families, we need to support parents to help them effectively co-regulate their child’s strong emotions to maintain homeostasis internally and within the family system. Using the therapeutic powers of play in the treatment process helps mental health professionals engage children and their parents to promote strong attachment relationships. Play is natural to children and helps to develop an avenue through which children and their parents can enjoy the moment and learn new ways of relating and communicating.

Integrating parents in the play therapy process provides the ability to help parents and children learn emotion regulation skills together. Parents can be integrated so they can used by their child as “coaches” to help their child use the emotion regulation and coping skills in “real time.” Using parents as skills “coaches” can help children apply what they learn the play room into their everyday life. Parents are the key to children using their skills in real time. Helping parents effectively co-regulate their child’s emotions provides a lifetime gift to their child to support their healthy social emotional growth and build resiliency.


Here’s a recap:

  1. Children are born with very immature and underdeveloped neural systems and begin from birth wiringneural pathways based on their early co-regulation experiences – both positive and negative.
  2. Co-regulation supports self-regulation and self-regulation supports internal homeostasis.
  3. Self-regulation promotes long term social and emotional well-being and increases resiliency. Resiliency is the “golden ticket” for tolerating life’s adversities and regulating emotions and behaviors.
  4. Integrating parents using the therapeutic powers of play into the treatment process provides opportunities for parents to successfully co-regulate their child’s emotions for long term benefits to the child well beyond their time with the therapist.


Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families? Check out this free pdf for the Be 5 Framework using intention and therapeutic presence for play therapy. Click here



Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Siegel, D. J., and Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey: Co-regulation and Emotion Regulation for Children

Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay  

As a mental health professional working with children, teens, and families, one of the questions that I regularly pose to supervises when I challenge them to integrate parents/caregivers into the treatment process is – Who has more impact across the span of their development- parents or therapists? Children will be with their families for the rest of their lives and in treatment with therapists usually for only a few months.  What is the relevance of co-regulation when working with children who struggle to manage their emotions? Parents are crucial to help their children develop health emotion regulation skills.

Who is involved in co-regulation?

Caregivers play an important role in the development of young children. From infancy through childhood, children need the adult caregivers in their lives to help them regulate their immature neural systems and emotions to develop a sense of well-being and safety.  The adults in their life involved in their daily care can be parents, day care providers, foster parents, and other family members or adults acting in a caregiving role.

Defining Co-regulation 

Co-regulation refers to a child’s ability to use their parent to help them regulate their emotions while parents, themselves, are able to remain emotionally regulated.  Schore and Schore (2008) state:

“the attachment relationship mediates the dyadic regulation of emotion, where the mother (primary caregiver) co-regulates the infant’s postnatally developing central (CNC) and autonomic nervous (ANS) systems. In this dialogical process the more the mother contingently tunes her activity level to the infant during periods of social engagement, the more she allows him to recover quietly in periods of disengagement, and the more she attends to his reinitiating cues for reengagement, the more synchronized their interactions” (p. 11).

This synchronized co-regulation begins to build a child’s ability to regulate his/her own emotions and tolerate periods of emotional distress. Windows of tolerance refers to how easily one is emotionally distressed when a challenging situation occurs, and one’s ability to effectively tolerate this distress and regain emotion regulation. Parents with wide windows of tolerance will be able to tolerate their own distress in the moment to remain regulated while they are present with their child who is emotionally dysregulated. Children will be able to use the stability of their parent to down regulate their distress and stabilize their emotions – calm themselves.

Parents with a narrow window of distress tolerance will have difficulty tolerating their own emotional distress in that moment, which may manifest as anger, impatience, curt responses, and/or increased anxiety and worry. Children will not be able to use their parent in that moment to help them down regulate their emotional distress to calm down and regain their ability to engage in positive interactions with others, focus on academics, experience safety and joy.

Benefits of effective co-regulation and integrating the therapeutic powers of play

Children who can effectively regulate their emotions and have experienced positive co-regulation with their parent more often than not tend to develop a healthy self-concept, effective emotion regulation skills, and social competence. Their ability to develop resiliency – the ability to “bounce back” after distressing situations and experiences – greatly increases.

Integrating the therapeutic powers of play provide provides the ability for children to engage more successfully in treatment and strengthen their attachment with their parents/caregivers. Play is the language of children and is essential in the treatment process, especially for helping children to use their parents as co-regulators. 

As mental health professionals working with children, it’s imperative that we help children effectively use their parents/caregivers to co-regulate their emotions whenever possible using an approach that meets the developmental needs of children. Caregivers’ involvement in treatment with their children is critical for long-term benefits. Mental health professionals can play an important role helping children effectively use their caregivers to regulate their emotions and supporting parents in that process.

Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families using play therapy? Check out this free pdf for the Be 5 Framework using intention and therapeutic presence with play therapy. Click here



Schaefer, C. E., and Drewes, A. A. (Eds.) (2014). The therapeutic powers of play: 20 core agents of change. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Schore, J. R., and Schore, A. N. (2008). Modern attachment theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36, 9-20. Doi.10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7

Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey: What the Heck is Epigenetics and Why Does It Matter to Mental Health Professionals?

Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S

As a mental health professional, I love learning about the relationship between neuroscience, behavior, and relationships. This information has helped me to be a more effective and compassionate therapist, especially when working with children and teens who’ve experienced trauma and attachment difficulties. Attachment effects so many aspects of our mental health. Research on the long-term effects of trauma has helped mental health and medical professionals recognize the importance of treating trauma early in life. I first heard about the field of epigenetics while working as a therapist at a residential treatment program that specializes in helping adopted teens and their families heal. Many of the teens I worked with in residential treatment had histories of trauma and attachment wounds. Since I’m a psychotherapy nerd (and proud of my self-proclaimed title), I was intrigued about this area of science and how it was relevant to the mental health field.  

First, a definition of epigenetics to explain the concept that will aid in understanding this fascinating and emerging area of science in the mental health world. According to, epigenetics is defined as:

“the study of the process by which genetic information is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism: specifically, the study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits is modified by environmental influences or other mechanisms without a change to the DNA sequence. “

Essentially, the research of epigenetics seeks to better understand and explain the nature vs. nurture question and redefine this age-old question. 

Let me “nerd out” for a bit more – hang in there if you get overwhelmed like I do with a lot of technical science explanations. In a nutshell, our genetic make-up is expressed through our phenotypes- i.e. which gene expressions are evident. For example, our hair color, eye color, and height are all examples of which phenotypes are manifested and evident. Our genes consist of many options (so to speak), such as we have the genotypes for both straight and curly hair, but we will predominately have either straight or curly hair depending on which one was expressed (phenotype).  

Okay, why does that matter when we’re talking about mental health? Scientists have been exploring the generational impact of a variety of mental health and cognitive issues, and how genetic expression might be influenced by events (environmental influence) that happened in one generation and may potentially impact future generations who have not had the same experiences. This is where the nature vs nurture question comes in. Let’s say one’s grandmother struggled with an addiction to alcohol and this grandmother had two children, Jane and Thomas. Neither Thomas nor Jane developed an addiction and yet, Thomas’s child developed an addiction during adolescence. The science of epigenetics seeks to explore the interaction between the nature and nurture aspect of why Thomas’s child developed an addiction even though his child did not grow up in a home where there was a parent with an addiction (nurture). Harper (2005) stated that the problem of viewing “genes and environments as essentially separate contributors to ontogeny, thereby failing to consider the complex ways in which they coact to lead to development of the individual” (p.340). This new way of thinking moves professionals away from explaining phenomenon as either nature or nurture and moving toward understanding humans from a nature and nurture perspective.

With advances in the 21st century in the fields of genetics and neuropsychology, scientists are increasing their ability to study in more depth the overlap between these two fields and are seeking to better understand how genetics may be influenced by one’s environment. Epigenetics seeks to better understand the interaction between nature and nurture to explore this relationship across generations with the underlying recognition that our genes are influenced by the interaction between one’s genes and one’s environment. It’s a complex phenomenon for sure. Kremen, Panizzon, and Cannon (2016) assert that there is “overwhelming evidence that genes play a major role in brain structure and function. As such it is our view that in the 21st century there needs to be a stronger integration of genomics and neuropsychology” (p. 1). The authors speculate that the study of epigenetics can help to better individualize treatment for individuals as their genomic differences are better understood.  Think about the relevance of this for psychiatry and medication! This has the potential to significantly decrease the trial and error process for finding effective medication to treat any number of mental health disorders specifically on an individual basis.

One area of study where epigenetics is showing promise – is the study of trauma and the impact of trauma across generations. This is an exciting area of study for trauma professionals. I’ll be discussing this in future blog posts.

References: at

Harper, L. V. (2005). Epigenetic inheritance and intergenerational transfer of experience. Psychological Bulletin, 131(3), 340-360. doi.10.1037/0033-2909.131.3.340

Kremen. W. S., Panizzon, M. S., and Cannon, T. D. (2016). Genetics and Neuropsychology: A merger whose time has come. Neuropsychology, 30(1), 1-5. doi.10.1037/neu0000254

Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey: A Discussion About Race in America A Letter from a Friend

The Hero’s Journey is a journey with many voices and many experiences. I am one voice on that journey. It’s impossible to walk this journey without each other. Sometimes the journey requires solitude and sometimes the journey requires seeking comfort and support from compassionate and wise “others.” Understanding culture and the experiences of others is a critical part of the Hero’s Journey. I’m so excite to introduce a fellow traveler. Monica has been a friend, a teacher, and mental health professional. She is a fellow traveler on the journey. She’s taught me to understand the “stories” and experiences of people in the black community to help me become a more compassionate and skilled therapist – and person.  I asked Monica to share her “story” and wisdom as one voice from the black community.  She has graciously accepted my invitation and chosen to share her voice in a letter. I am honored to share her “voice.”

~ Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S

To Whom It May Concern:

I have chosen to write a letter to express my thoughts, feelings and experiences, since it is clear to me that I desire to experience change and it is My responsibility to honor that which I seek and open the door to have, what has been the challenging conversation.

Words cannot begin to describe how deeply saddened, hurt, disappointed, astonished, and troubled I am that in the year 2020, the emphasis and credence given to race, a social construct, versus that of our humanity, continues to prevail. Have We the People questioned the construct that was put in place centuries ago and evolved just as the medical and technological advancements? How have those advancements taken precedence over that of our humanity; that of our Oneness?

As I watched the news broadcast and the video of a human life being extinguished, I wept. A million and one thoughts and feelings ran through My heart, mind, and spirit.  Primarily, with all of our societal “advancements”, please help Me understand the reasons a.) history keeps repeating itself; b.) what are the reasons the lessons continue to go unlearned and c.) what has happened to compassion and empathy for our fellowman…or was/is that my naivete?

It was as I pondered these questions that I became acutely aware that the only opinions/beliefs that appear to have mattered are those of White America.  Based on My experience, the voices of African Americans in this country have gone unheard and dismissed.  I know, a bold statement, so allow Me to provide clarity.

Until the untimely death of Mr. Floyd, deniability has been used to escape the reality of the African American experience in this country.  Now that White Americans witnessed the death, and have begun to question the disenfranchisement, inequities and systemic racism, there has been some form of movement. Prior to this incident, there has appeared to be NO compassion, willingness nor openness for open, honest feedback and/or dialogue about racism.

This is NOT the first time this type of incident has occurred; hence, it is unclear to Me the reason this incident appeared to be so shocking and appalling to White America.  One thing I know to be true is EVERYTHING that lies dormant in darkness will eventually be brought to the light.  The masks that have been worn to deny racism have been forced to fall away, and in 2020, we, as a country, have an opportunity to honor and stand on the principles that the United States of America deems to be the foundation of this country.  I recognize that we ALL have opinions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences that ultimately shape our beliefs.  However, and perhaps naively, I was under the impression that in our humanity – and IF our humanity has meaning and is important – one is open, willing and available to listening (vs. hearing) the other persons beliefs even if those beliefs are opposing to that of our own.  Then and only then can understanding be gained.

It’s disheartening and extremely challenging for Me to be completely transparent and to admit publicly and more importantly, to Myself that I was NOT surprised by Mr. Floyd’s experience. You see, the experience has on many levels been the norm for African Americans that the shock and awe I experienced was in the fact that it was recorded for ALL to see.  Wow, that was hard to admit! This was a POWERFUL awareness and part of my personal inventory about race!  Had I become so desensitized/complacent and dare I say, on some level willing to accept that this form of treatment has become Normal?  As I contemplated “normalcy”, I was thrust into a state of anger, rage, frustration, disappointment, sadness and ultimately, I recognized that I had been experiencing a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and apathy.

I questioned the reasons that generation after generation of African Americans are still struggling with the same issues our ancestors had experienced.  I also began to ponder the impact and role epigenetics (the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself) has played in the African American community. I genuinely desire to know what appears to be the underlying fears of White America that have prohibited change.  How long is long enough?

The beauty of this experience was I am now at a place of choice!  I am profoundly grateful for this time of self-reflection for new awareness and the opportunity to engage in a self-inventory as it pertains to race.  This process has allowed Me to remove my own mask, face my own denial and apathy while, simultaneously, affording Me the opportunity to experience the expansiveness of LOVE!  You see, my initial reaction to ALL that has happened, in ALL OF my HUMANNESS was to allow anger, judgement and withdraw to set up house in My heart and mind.  However, through prayer and My desire to honor My commitment to Be the LOVE I Have been created for Me to Be, I made a different choice.  The beauty of the principle of choice is that through choice, things can be transformed through LOVE!

Now when I think of 2020, I immediately reference VISION, which has many meanings, and again my heart is filled with love, joy, and possibility.  Vision, optimal vision, 20/20 vision, affords the opportunity to see things clearly and acquire corrective lenses if needed.  Vision is also fertile ground to create that which is desired and play in the possibility of creating and manifesting something new!

With all of that being shared, I offer the following:  Take a look at the distinctions that are made about Blackness it is in those distinctions where information can be revealed, if, for example- whether consciously or unconsciously, contemplate what really makes “US” so different distinction are made?  Because, and this IS My opinion, whether a black person is light skinned, well educated, at a high socio-economic status, is articulate and intelligent, does not mean their experience is any different than those who do not necessarily fall into ANY of those categories. Please be CLEAR, I fall into the aforementioned categories AND I am NO different than ANY other Black person because the FIRST thing anyone sees IS My Blackness.  White America, you are truly at a place of choice.

Those of you who have black friends and are not completely sure about the BLM movement, I offer, does it take a personal relationship for the issues that others experience to matter? Take note, because any of your friends could have been a Breonna Taylor and your black male friends could be a George Floyd.  Although, based on what many have shared via social media etcetera, and it is NOT my opinion, racism is embedded into the fiber of society and this country. History clearly demonstrates these ARE facts, and   White Americans in this country – just have NOT had the same experience.

My experience of many White Americans is, there has been a lack of compassion, sensitivity, openness, and willingness to gain an alternative perspective. The level of dismissiveness to the experiences of People of Color has been awakening for which I am grateful, especially since that has not been my norm as My White friends desire to gain understanding.  The beauty of everything that has occurred in our country is that I had My first experience of contemptuous views and I chose Love and My faith. AND I ALSO KNOW things can be different and the conversations CAN be had because I have engaged with many of my White friends and co-workers, with varying viewpoints, and when there is reciprocity, the experience of Love, connection, authenticity, understanding and growth has been profound.  I will leave you with this:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson, from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles (Harper Collins, 1992; from Chapter 7, Section 3)

Be Well!

Be Blessed, Be Love, Be Inspired! 😊


Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey: Resilience, Spirituality, and Connection

As a mental health professional, I often ponder why some people seem to fare better than others with their emotional well-being. It’s a complex issue, for sure, due to the many factors involved in one’s emotional well-being. For me, one of the important factors to consider when pondering emotional well-being is resilience. Resilience is usually understood as one’s ability to successfully “bounce back” after experiencing difficulties in life. Currently, on a global scale, people all over the world are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial, social, and emotional impact of the COVID-19 virus will likely be felt for months, even years, to come. As I write this article, our country is also challenged to examine the issue of racism and policing. These are complex issues. They provide us with an opportunity to grow as a nation and as individuals or remain polarized and unhealed. In this article, I’d like to discuss the concepts of resilience, spirituality, and connection. Now more than ever we are stretched in our ability to manage the global and national impact of these current challenges as each of us seeks to be the “hero” in our own personal and professional journeys.

In the Hero’s Journey, resilience or grit as described by Angela Duckworth (2017) is required to persevere and thrive despite life’s circumstances. Duckworth (2017) dispels the myth that special talent is the reason for success in life. Her research identified how gritty people are able to achieve success in life through practice, purpose, passion, and interest. Hou and Skovholt (2020) examined resilience within the context of understanding the characteristics of resilient psychotherapists given their role to sit with clients to hear mental health difficulties day after day and year after year.  The authors state that “resilience qualities are acquired through resilient reintegration, a process when individuals move forward from dwelling in negative emotions associated with disruption and become ready to cope and incorporate new worldviews, insights, and growth gained from reflection on adversity” (Hou and Skovholt, 2020, p. 387). 

Resilience goes beyond coping skills and requires our ability to “dig down” deep within ourselves to tap into our internal mechanisms to find meaning, purpose, and positive outlook despite the difficulties we are facing in life. Garrido-Hernansaiz, Rodriguez-Rey, and Alonso-Tapia (2020) state, “resilience in the face of different adversities may be explained in different ways; therefore, the exploration of its underlying processes should consider the effect of the type of adversity” (p. 2). The authors examine the correlation between coping skills and resilience in four different populations of people facing different adversities: individuals in the general population, individuals living with HIV, individuals with cancer, and individuals who have children with cancer. Their research found that resilience across these four groups of people was similar on average, and differences among their styles of coping emerged. Coping skills can help us tolerate our emotional distress while we access our ability to persevere through difficulties. The Hero’s Journey requires that we access our internal resources, use healthy coping skills, and grit to continue our journey with authenticity and resilience.

What characteristics are associated with resilience? In a review of factors contributing to resilience, Southwick, Pietrzak, Tsai, Krystal, and Charney (2015) report the following factors were consistently reported in the literature to be associated with resilience: “positive emotions and optimism, active problem-focused coping, moral courage and altruism, attention to physical health and fitness, capacity to regulate emotions, cognitive flexibility, religiosity/spirituality, high level of positive social support and commitment to a valued and meaningful cause, purpose or mission” (p. 1). The authors state neurobiology, development, and genetics also play a key role in resilience. 

The connection between spirituality and resilience is notable. Spirituality is often viewed as separate and connected to the concept of religion. Religion generally ascribes to a specific set of doctrine and practices. Spirituality is often explained in more general terms. I conceptualize spirituality as a manifestation through a particular religion, although, many people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Many of the characteristics of resilience described above can also be associated with spirituality. Dowrick (2011) describes spirituality as a connection to our deepest, most authentic selves in connection with others. Spirituality is often associated with a sense of inner connection with ourselves and strong sense of altruism manifested in connection with others. Weber (2004) examines spirituality within an existential framework. He advocates that spirituality propels us to seek our higher purpose in life and for a broader recognition of spirituality beyond religious doctrine. He argues that spirituality requires one to freely choose to explore and challenge one’s beliefs, culture, and understanding of himself, and his connection with others to find a deeper meaning of one’s self and connection with others. This is the challenge currently occurring in our country as Americans are faced with issues of racism, policing, and public safety.

Resilient people seek to find meaning and purpose in their difficulties to help them maintain a positive outlook while maintaining authentic connection to others. In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown (2015) discusses the importance of authenticity as a resiliency factor against the negative impact of shame on one’s social emotional wellness and relationships. Her research focuses on shame and shame resiliency to dispel long held myths about shame and create a culture of authenticity. Her subsequent book, Braving the Wilderness (2019), recognizes the importance of first and foremost, our need to create a sense of belonging deep within ourselves for true authenticity to occur. This journey toward authenticity is a spiritual journey of self-discovery that must take place in order for authentic and loving connection to occur. 

Connection with others is heavily influenced by our attachment style, or pattern of attachment that we experienced growing up with our caregivers and other important people in our lives. Our ability to connect authentically with others and thus use these supportive relationships to create resiliency is essential for the Hero’s Journey. These attachment patterns are a manifestation of neurobiology that is heavily influenced by our relationships experiences. Infants are born with sensory-based neural pathways to help them read facial cues, voice tone, and touch during interactions with caregivers. Infants and young children are dependent upon their caregivers for their survival. This early “wiring” is essential to help them assess safety and their ability to trust caregivers will meet their needs for survival through their caregiver relationship. Over time child and caregiver relationships become more complex as the child grows and develops. 

These child-caregiver interactions become stored away within implicit memory and create the foundation for understanding relationships. Implicit memory is formed through experiential sensory information received and is stored in our brain without language. Infants and pre-verbal children have not reached their developmental milestones to communicate through language since those areas of the brain are still developing, so it makes sense that their experiences are stored in the brain without language. Those memories are stored away in their brain and influence later experiences. For instance, a child who has regularly experienced safe and loving touch, voice tone, and facial expressions from their caregivers. Their safety neural pathways will register that their caregiver is safe and reliable to meet their needs because those implicit memories with all of the sensory information and meaning attached to them will be activated during their interactions to signal safety and trust. Child-caregiver relationship interactions will influence attachment style development for the child and their ability to engage in authentic connection with others.

Thankfully, our brain has the capacity to heal and become resilient even when negative experiences have occurred. The Hero’s Journey provides each of us with the ability to develop resilience through difficulties and requires us to persevere. Spirituality encourages us to maintain a hopeful and resilient view of ourselves, others, and the world. It requires us to demonstrate the courage to be authentic within ourselves and within our relationships. 


Duckworth, A. (2017). Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success. London, UK:    Vermillion.

Garrido-Hernansaiz, H., Rodríguez-Rey, R., & Alonso-Tapia, J. (2020, April 2). Coping and Resilience Are Differently Related Depending on the Population: A Comparison Between Three Clinical Samples and the General Population. International Journal of Stress Management. Advance online publication. doi.10.1037/str0000156 

Hou, J., and Skovholt, T. M. (2020). Characteristics of highly resilient therapists. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(3), 386-400. Doi.10:1037cou0000401

Southwick, S. M., Pietrzak, R. H., Tsai, J., Krystal, J. H., and Charney, D. (2015). Resilience: An update. PTSD Research Quarterly, 25(4), 1-10.

Webster, R. S. (2004): An existential framework of spirituality. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 9(1), 7-19. doi.10.1080/1364436042000200799 

Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey and The Role of Armour

In the hero’s journey, threat is always present and activates our response for protection. Sometimes this threat is distant, and we are safe from harm. Other times in life, we face challenges that threaten our well-being. Currently, our world is facing a worldwide pandemic with the COVID-19 threat impacting not only our medical safety, but our financial and emotional safety. No one is left unaffected, not even in other countries. The threat is real. People will react to this threat based on the real and/or perceived understanding of the threat, which will activate a continuum of threat responses within our body and our brain based on that real and/or perceived level of threat. For example- if I am the sole provider in my family and I lost my job due to the impact of social distancing, then the threat for the safety of my family is real. The level of severity of my perception for the threat will influence the severity of my response to the threat.  If I have no social support network, such as family and friends and I have been a low wage earner, then my financial and social resources are limited and I may be forced into homelessness. On the other hand, if I have a high paying job and have substantial financial and social support available to me, then I will likely experience a different outcome for my family. The severity of my response to the threat will likely be higher in the first scenario than the second one.

Many factors influence our threat response system- past history of challenges, inherent resiliency, quality and availability of one’s social support system, mental health and well-being, age, physical health and well-being, level of cognitive functioning, and substance misuse to name a few. All of these factors influence our response to life’s challenges that threaten our stability because they will influence our vulnerability to harm, which activates our threat system for protection. Vulnerability in challenging circumstances tends to increase a protective response. Vulnerability guru, Brene Brown, has researched shame and vulnerability extensively and its influence in our daily lives. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brown shares her insights and research about the importance of overcoming shame and risking vulnerability to live an authentic life (Brown, 2012).

When feelings and beliefs of vulnerability activate our threat system, our body and brain will respond on a neurological level to protect us from harm to the best of our ability in that moment. This is true in the natural world as well. We see the role of defenses and protection in nature.  In nature we see that when a threat is perceived then a safety response is activated in the form of defenses. Defenses are meant to protect us. They provide armour. There are many flora and fauna species where we see this. Brightly colored frogs in the rainforest call attention to themselves to warn predators against attack. In a similar manner, humans may use bravado to warn attackers away when feeling threatened. I live in the desert where this principle is demonstrated. The harsh desert climate requires species to develop survival mechanisms. What I find most fascinating is that their protection mechanisms not only ensure their survival, they also allow their beauty to survive. The desert cactus displays menacing spikes that demand we

 use caution when approaching, while also exhibiting some of the most beautiful flowers and shapes. These plants also are a source of water in the desert and as such are a symbol of resiliency and life. The desert horned lizard lives in the harsh desert climate here in southern Nevada. It has two protective features – its ability to camouflage and the small spike-like structures on the back of its head. It can blend into its environment for protection from harm, and if needed, use its spike-like scales.

 Brown (2012) discusses ways in which humans try to “camouflage” themselves to avoid the perceived threat of exposure. To live the hero’s life requires courage and steadfast conviction to use our armour for protection when facing challenges, but not to let our armour diminish our quality of life, our relationships, or our sense of self. Life will be challenging for all of us at varying degrees in our lives.  Our defenses are an indication that a threat is perceived and needs to be assessed. 

From infancy, our brain works to keep us alive and ensure the survival of our species. The earliest brain circuits that come online for infants occur in the right brain areas of the brain to begin reading cues from their caregivers. Infants begin learning to recognize facial expression, voice tone, quality of touch, and body language of caregivers. Pioneering researcher, Alan Schore (2000; 2001) has shown that the right hemisphere plays a critical role in attachment from infancy, since the right hemisphere has a central role in recognizing and processing facial cues and nonverbal information. Human infants depend on their caregivers for their survival much longer than most other species for food and protection. It makes sense, then, that our brain is a social brain which begins its development of neural pathways in utero and continues development throughout human life with it’s fastest growth during the first three years of life. We need to learn to read the intentions of others to maintain our safety and stability. 

Within the social brain are neural networks that are critical to facilitate understanding of another.  According to Daniel Siegel (2011) in his groundbreaking theory of what he calls Mindsight, Siegel discusses the concept of internal mind maps in which mirror neuron systems help us to experience one another mind to mind and understanding one another more fully. These mirror neurons were discovered in 1992 when scientists were conducting research on monkeys to understand neural circuits in the brain (Rodrigues 2018; Seigel, 2011). What they discovered is that our brain can develop the ability to understand the intentions of others due to specific neural circuits. Based on their research with monkeys, scientists discovered that visual information received by our brain is linked to motor action. Mirror neurons in one person’s brain are activated when that person sees another person’s intentional, goal-directed action. The sequence of the behavior not only activates neural pathways in the person engaging in the action, it also activates the neural pathway in the brain of the person observing the sequenced, goal-directed behavior. How cool is that?  I can watch you perform a predictable behavior and the same neural pathways will light up in my mind to give me greater understanding of your behavior. Siegel (2011) states: 

beginning from the perception of a basic behavioral intention, our more elaborated human prefrontal cortex enables us to map out the minds of others.  Our brains use sensory information to create representations of others’ minds, just as they use sensory input to create images of the physical world. (p. 61)

Stephen Porges (2011) identified the neural processes involved when assessing threats and coined the term, neurception circuits, to describe how our protective behaviors of flight, flight, and freeze are activated to defend against harm. When our brain perceives a threat, then these circuits are activated to protect us, which will disengage our ability to engage our social engagement brain systems. In order to protect ourselves from harm we cannot simultaneously engage those brain circuits that allow us to experience emotional connection, which makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The problem is that if our defense systems do not disengage then we cannot engage in healthy, satisfying emotional connection with those we love. The dialectical dilemma here is that in order to feel safe I need to be able to disengage my neuroception circuits and I cannot disconnect my neuroception circuits unless I feel safe. My “armour” has both a protective and a destructive aspect. The hero’s journey requires that we learn to use our “armour” wisely so that we can, as Brene Brown (2012) encourages, learn to get in the “arena” of life and be victorious.  She cites a favorite quote by Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

This is the hero’s journey. To allow ourselves to be a warrior and use our protective defense systems, while also allowing ourselves to fully engage in life and risk harm to display our humanity in its greatest form- love, courage, and authentic connection with others.

Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S


Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Avery.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: W.W Norton & Company.

Rodrigues, P. R. G. (2018). The visual neuropsychology of the other. Psychology & Neuroscience, 11(3), 231-237. doi:10.1037/pne0000131

Schore, A.N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain.  Attachment and Human Development, 2(1), 23-47.

Schore, A.N. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal. 22(1-2), 7-66. 

Siegel, D.J. (2011). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Posted in Neuroscience of Attachment

The Hero’s Journey: Resilience, Spirituality, and Neuroscience

The Hero’s Journey: Resilience, Renewal, Spirituality, and Neuroscience

I am pleased to introduce my new blog which will use the framework of the hero’s journey to examine topics related to mental health issues and treatment for children, teens, and their families. As a mental health professional who integrates the power of creativity into the healing process, I love the metaphor of the hero’s journey. Metaphor and creativity invite us to explore depths within ourselves that conscious thought cannot always examine in the moment.  When we tap into the power of creativity and metaphor through mindfulness, we allow ourselves to reach untapped and unconscious areas that can enhance and create joy within ourselves, our relationships, and in our lives. I plan to discuss topics related to creativity, metaphor, and neuroscience as it relates to family, parenting, child and adolescent development, the role of spirituality and resilience in healing, mindfulness, and social emotional well-being.

I love the idea that we are the heroes in our own story, our journey through life, and our relationships because it symbolizes resilience and growth- overcoming and thriving despite life’s challenges. Probably the most well-known stories of the hero that most of us grew up watching are the stories we saw in Disney movies. In these stories, the main character had to overcome challenges in life and self-doubt to realize their self-worth, uniqueness, inner strength, and wisdom. The heros in these stories always had their support people who saw their true potential and awesomeness. Heroes don’t overcome their challenges and become whole without supportive people who care about them and encourage them when life gets tough. People who care about you and want to see you succeed don’t give up on you even when you want to give up on yourself. We all need our inner circle of safe and supportive people to aid us in our life journey.

The metaphor of the hero is not a new idea created by Disney. Heroes have been depicted in ancient mythology and literature from long ago. Well-known author and professor, Joseph Campbell, explored the cultural, spiritual, and metaphor of myth in his books and lectures, most notably in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 1969).  This book explored various heroes depicted in mythology, literature, and culture. It provides keen insights into a variety of aspects of the hero that are reflective of the human race throughout time and culture.

Fairy tales are another source of myth and the hero’s journey. Bettleheim (1977) invited mental health professionals to explore the psychological metaphor of fairy tales and its relevance to psychotherapy in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. This book was my first introduction to play therapy in the mid-1980’s. I was a third grade special education teacher for children with emotional disturbance. The school psychologist, Mary K, invited me to join her to provide group therapy with my class using the fairy tales discussed in Bettleheim’s book. My students and I acted out the fairy tale as Mary K narrated the fairy tale. It was fabulous to watch the children engage in the story and overcome the evil adult character, which is of course the role I played. I was hooked on play and expressive arts therapy from that moment.

Another valuable source of exploring and integrating the hero metaphor into clinical work is The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By written by Carol Pearson (Pearson, 1989). She identifies six archetypes crucial to the hero’s journey and discusses the role of these archetypes within each of us  in our life journeys. The author states,

“our experience quite literally is defined by our assumptions about life. We make stories about the world and to a large degree live out their plots. What our lives are like depends to great extent on the script we consciously, or more likely, unconsciously, have adopted” (Pearson, 1989, p. xxv).

Healing and resiliency are at the core of the counseling process for mental health professionals. Our goal is to help our clients tap into their internal resources, recognize their inner wisdom, and learn healthy ways to engage fully in their lives and with the important people in their lives. This often moves people to access their spirituality- their beliefs about the unseen universe and its role in their lives. Spirituality for some people is based on their faith and beliefs about God. Other people may take a more broad view of spirituality that is not based on an organized religion. Regardless of your views of spirituality or your client’s specific spirituality preferences, it is an area in the mental health profession that creates discomfort, confusion, irritation, and uncertainty for many. If we, as mental health professionals, leave this untapped inner resource undiscovered by our clients, we may inadvertently deprive them of an opportunity to increase their internal emotional resources and develop inner strength, which are critical for thriving in life.

Spirituality in its simplest form is not one religion or philosophy.  Dowrick (2011) prefers to conceptualize spirituality as the sacred. In her book, Seeking the Sacred, she introduces us to the idea that

“our search for the sacred may be as individualized as our fingerprints. Yet it connects us effortlessly to all living beings. It lets us discover what is most treasured and transformative in human existence. It lets us see existence itself as entirely precious. What we regard as precious, we will naturally protect” (Dowrick, 2011, p. 3).

Carl Jung used the term collective unconscious to conceptualize the idea that mankind is connected through time and culture. This concept of spirituality recognized that people of all cultures and across time share a humanity that connects us and serves an important role in our self-discovery.

Expressive arts and play allow the opportunity for mental health professionals to facilitate the ability for our clients to engage in the healing process- the hero’s journey- to overcome and thrive in life.  Sandtray, music, art, poetry, drama, and play offer clients an avenue through which they can express aspects of themselves they may not have conscious awareness of and the ability to articulate this to a compassionate helper- their therapist. A skilled expressive arts therapist can help clients use the power of metaphor to engage in the hero’s journey to experience healing, build resilience and strength, and explore spirituality.

Much has been learned over the last several decades about the neuroscience of behavior, emotion regulation, and relationships, especially the role of right brain processes in these areas. As a mental health professional, it’s my belief that science keeps us grounded in the work that we do with our clients. Neuroscience and research help us recognize and understand how the brain works and resulting behaviors, including behavior within relationships. Attachment and creativity are predominantly a result of neural circuitry in the right brain. It’s an exciting time to be in the mental health field as we are learning more and more about the mysteries of the mind and how the mind and the brain influence our everyday lives and our relationships.

Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S

Owner of Renewing Hearts Counseling & Consulting, PLLC


Bettelheim, B. (1977). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces (2nd Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dowrick, S. (2011). Seeking the sacred: Transforming our view of ourselves and one another. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Pearson, C. S. (1989). The hero within: Six archetypes we live by (Expanded ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.