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Jesse Viner, M.D.

Jesse Viner M.D.

Neuroscience and Developmental Psychology

Research informs treatment

Recent advances in developmental theory and neurobiological research present an opportunity to design developmentally informed models for understanding and addressing challenges faced by individuals 18 to 26 years old who have now come to be known as “emerging adults.”

Arnett (2000) introduced the term emerging adulthood to identify the developmental phase in persons ages 18-26 years. This developmental phase, according to Arnett (2004), is characterized by: 1) identity exploration, where one’s sense of self and self-identification in major life areas such as love, work and world perspective is refined and redefined; 2) generalized instability in all areas of life with uncertainty of future possibilities and potential life paths; 3) a state of in-between adolescence and adulthood; 4) self-focus with a shift toward greater individual identity, personal power, self-regulation, and self-agency; and 5) possibilities and risks with risk factors peaking and biological, psychological, and sociocultural influences emerging that may be uniquely destabilizing to this age group.

Tanner’s (2006) concept of recentering complements Arnett’s theory by integrating emerging adulthood into the individual life span, and reframing the concept of transition into adulthood as a three-stage process that involves leaving adolescence, experiencing emerging adulthood, and entering young adulthood. Tanner describes an individualized developmental trajectory by which the emerging adult must: 1) separate from family and form primary attachments with peers and other adults; 2) transition from child and adolescent dependencies to engage with the larger world; 3) consolidate a resilient regard for self and identity as a capable and valued member of society; 4) launch a relatively self-sufficient career and life; and 5) develop effective, goal-directed, self-regulated life skills.

Neuroscience research has shown that normal brain maturation in emerging adults parallels the increasing complexity of these developmental and psychosocial demands. The primary, organizing purpose of brain formation and growth throughout the lifespan is to evolve an increasingly complex and higher-order representation of self and self-in-relation to the world (Siegel, 1999). Identity formation is a critical biological process for survival and adaptation, and emerging adulthood is a pivotal period in the maturation of attachment patterns (e.g., secure, anxious-avoidant, ambivalent, disorganized), which in turn affect self-integration, motivation-reward systems, emotional regulation and executive functioning. The self does not develop optimally in isolation, but within the context of relationships which provide affirming, soothing, and vitalizing functions as well as new learning. Siegel (1999) asserted that “human connections shape neural connections.” Being open to human connections that feel safe, nourishing and stimulating is required for optimal development in the brain areas and networks noted above that are maturing during emerging adulthood.

Understanding the developmental psychology and neuroscience of emerging adult brain development guides the conceptual design of treatment for emerging adults. Three principles guide the treatment design. Each guiding principle ascribes therapeutic success to the provision of real-life opportunities for healthy attachment, emotional immersion, and neurosynaptic activation that are required for enduring change in self-organization, affect regulation, and adaptive functioning.

The first guiding principle is that it is necessary to "quiet the limbic system" (van der Kolk et al., 2005) to help emerging adults achieve a greater sense of safety. Quieting techniques facilitate attachments by promoting self-soothing and regulation. This is especially relevant when challenges are associated with trauma, anxiety disorders, and emotional/self-inhibition. Emotional and cognitive learning cannot take place in a state of fear. This also includes protecting the brain from the neurotoxic effects of excess alcohol and substances, lack of sleep or nutrition, and the distorting effects of unteated psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis.

The second guiding principle is the belief that it is essential to support the psycho-neurobiological development of a coherent self, an organized self, and a self-regulated self (Schore, 2008; Siegel, 1999; Gedo & Goldberg, 1973). This principle puts an emphasis on the processes of self-informed agency, self-directed empowerment, and an adaptive balance of vulnerability, collaboration, and boundaries for self-protection. This second pillar emphasizes the self-actualizing and motivational patterns of the developing individual.

The third and last precept is drawn from neurocognitive modes of decision-making (Noel et al., 2006); therapeutic experiences of processing and problem-solving through emotional states of activation that occur in real-time within meaningful relationships are essential for achieving growth and change. Such experiences exercise and grow the networking between the limbic system and pre-frontal cortex which are naturally primed to sprout through emerging adulthood. Using mindfulness techniques such as "Reaction & Reflection,” while in relation, promote neurocognitive growth and, in turn, facilitate the further development of mindfulness, cognitive and executive functions, and competent self-governance.

Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469-480.

Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gedo, J. E., & Goldberg, A. (1973). Models of the mind: A psychoanalytic theory. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

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

Schore, A. N. (2003a). Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self. New York: Norton.

Schore, A. N. (2003b). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: Norton.

Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

Swendsen, J., Conway, K. P., Degenhardt, L., Glantz, M., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., Sampson, N., & Kessler, R. C. (2010).

Tanner, J. L. (2006). Recentering during emerging adulthood: A critical turning point in life span human development. In J. J. Arnett and J. L.

Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

van der Kolk B. A., Roth, S., Pelcovitz, D., Sunday, S., & Spinazzola, J. (2005). Disorders of extreme stress: The empirical foundation of a complex adaptation to trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 18(5), 389-399.

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