Author:Paul Gilmartin

Rewiring the Brain After Trauma: A Guest Blog by Rachel Grant

It’s Nothing But a Neuron! Exploring How to Re-train the Brain and Heal from Sexual Abuse

Have you ever walked by a pie shop and, upon smelling a fresh backed pumpkin pie, been transported back in time to a fond memory of Thanksgiving? Or maybe caught a glimpse of a stranger with certain features and found yourself thinking about that girl or guy from way back when? How about a significant other who one day playfully wrestles with you, and all of a sudden you find yourself lashing out at him without really understanding why? What exactly is occurring neurologically and what are the implications for the recovery from abuse?

According to Daniel Siegel in The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (1999, Guilford Press), “understanding how trauma affects the developing brain can yield insights into the subsequent impairments of memory processing and the ability to cope with stress.” Before exploring the impairments and coping he refers to, let’s take a quick look at how memories are created and recalled in the first place.

There is a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways are created in the brain by neurons firing and connecting to create a neural net. When we smell the pumpkin pie, what is actually happening is that a particular neuronal pathway is ignited. This neural net has now been modified in that it holds the initial memory of Thanksgiving with family and now the time walking by the store and experiencing the same smell. Thus, the neuronal pathway is expanded and reinforced by the reactivation. It’s like turning a one lane into a two lane road.

Now, consider the implication if, instead of the warm smell of pumpkin pie, the experience is abuse. As Siegel points out, with “chronic occurrence, these states can become more readily activated (retrieved) in the future, such that they become characteristic traits of the individual. In this way, our lives can become shaped by reactivations of implicit memory, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We simply enter these engrained states and experience them as the reality of our present experience.”

This is what Siegel means by “impairments of memory processing.” You respond to your significant other in the moment with fear and anger thinking that what he is doing is the problem, when, instead, a neuronal pathway has been triggered and the implicit memory of your abuser restraining you is activated. This is what you are responding to in reality. The same thing occurs in response to stressors. If our experience starts to make us feel trapped or scared, we may respond in the same way we did when needing to survive the abuse rather than in a way that actually addresses the present day stressor.

So then, are we always to be held hostage by these firing neurons? Absolutely not! “Each day is literally the opportunity to create a new episode of learning, in which recent experience will become integrated with the past and woven into the anticipated future” (Siegel). Neurons can be re-wired!

Perhaps the first step is to simply absorb the fact that many of our present day responses, thoughts, emotions are nothing but a neuronal pathway lighting up! Recognition of this creates space for us to consider the possibility that what we think or feel is going on may not be what is, in fact, really happening.

Secondly, as Siegel states, when one is able to inhibit the engrained state and respond to a situation, trigger, or stressor in a new way, that neuronal pathway will be adapted. The more frequently this occurs, the more modified the neuronal pathway becomes, and the behavior, thought, or emotion that is produced is also modified.

Finally, from my experience coaching people who have been abused, the ability to actually respond in a new way comes as a result of, first, developing the ability to separate what is actually happening from the interpretations or emotions that follow. There are other steps, to be sure, to complete the work of re-wiring, but this initial step is critical.

I’ve come to affectionately think of these interpretations as “stories” – our little efforts at trying to explain, understand why something has happened. Unfortunately, most of the time – like 99% of the time – the story we come up with is really just an old neuronal pathway begging to be fed. We usually quickly oblige and find ourselves mired in negative self-talk and self-thought.

So, as you consider what “stories” you have, just take a moment to really get the connection between the thought, past experiences, and present day “lighting” up of the neuronal connections. You can begin challenging these connections and, as a result, create new possibilities for the way you view yourself, others, and experiences!



Rachel Grant is the owner and founder of Rachel Grant Coaching and is a Sexual Abuse Recovery Coach. She is also the author of Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse.  She works with survivors of childhood sexual abuse who are beyond sick and tired of feeling broken, unfixable, and burdened by the past. She helps them let go of the pain of abuse and finally feel normal.

Her program, Beyond Surviving, has been specifically designed to change the way we think about and heal from abuse. Based on her educational training, study of neuroscience, and lessons learned from her own journey, she has successfully used this program since 2007 to help her clients break free from the past and move on with their lives.

Rachel holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. She provides a compassionate and challenging approach for her clients while using coaching as opposed to therapeutic models. She is also a member of San Francisco Coaches.



Cutting Contact With Her Mom: An email from Barbara in NC

Hi Paul-

I have tried to start this letter to you so many times (and here I go again!), but listening to what you said about missing your mom on a recent show finally got me to do it. I don’t think anyone that has never experienced the point of getting to where you have to cut ties with a parent for your own survival could ever understand.

Since I don’t want this to turn into a long, drawn out story, I will hit the highlights:

  • Mother was raised Irish Catholic, so guilt and shame and not talking about feelings were ingrained from birth
  • She married alcoholic, misogynistic asshole and had kids because that’s what you did. I would get into the fucked up person my father was, but that is another letter in itself
  • From as young as I can remember, my mother was a bit “off”. Found out of many traumatic events in her life later on that she never dealt with. I never got along with my siblings; my mother’s personality disorder played a huge part in that.
  • House fire in 1985 almost killed her and something broke in her brain that never came back.
  • Bipolar? Personality disorder? Who knows. She spent her life going to Dr’s and never really talking about anything. Oh my God she had soooo much shit happen to her that therapy and a good, caring therapist would have helped. Breaks my heart to think about it.
  • Took meds on and off. From the time I was 20 until 40, I spent my life completely preoccupied with just wanting her to be OK. Psych wards and being committed dozens of times never broke the cycle. Eventually she got tired of me being tired of her and one day told me “we need to go our separate ways.” It was about the third time in our lives that we did not talk for an extended amount of time, but it was to be the last. I had turned 40 a few month before, and my daughter was 11.

The beginning of that end happened when I began to set boundaries when I realized that she was trying to pit my own child against me. I am a single parent, and from the time I decided to keep her, knew that I would be a great parent, because the one thing I would do for my child was never make her feel like she wasn’t wanted. When I said my parents had kids because “that’s what you did back then”, that’s what it felt like. We had everything we needed, but nothing close to the loving relationship I share with my own child. You have touched on it many times on your show- the emotionally distant parent, and the child that was always wanting. My parents also used money as a way to control. By my own fault, I was dependent on her the first years of raising my daughter. What would start with open arms and generosity eventually turned to control and fight picking and being thrown out of the house. At least I wised up to that and stopped living under the same roof, but the more I took my independence out of this terribly co-dependent relationship, the more it angered her.


After my mother “broke up with me”, I made the decision that the only way I would ever deal with her again was if we went to therapy together. I was not going to get sucked into another episode of her “come close, I love you—now that you are back and comfortable, get away, I hate you”. I could not take another bout of that. When she did contact me, I told her about my request for therapy, and she told me “I don’t need to see a therapist” in the most hateful voice. That’s it, I was done. I can’t help you if you refuse to help yourself. I finally got it.


A few years later, I found out through a series of unfortunate events that she was moving out of state to live near cousins that would take care of her. She was, at this point, having serious health issues and had been in several car accidents. A hospital in another state where she was traveling did not know who to call when she was brought in (incoherent after causing an accident on an interstate) and called a mutual friend of ours, who called me. When I called the hospital, I was told that she did not want to speak to me or want my help. I spoke to a cousin who told me that yes, she was moving to where they lived. I thanked her for taking care of her, and she told me that it would be great if my mom and I could just sit down and talk it out, that everything could be better “because of love”. People have no fucking idea what they’re talking about when they have not lived through this hell. They are completely delusional. To most people, my mother seemed perfectly sane; it was like she kept her awful behavior in check until she could take it out on her family.


She started calling me again a few years after she’d moved. When I answered my phone, the first thing she asked was if I wanted her to take us on another trip to Europe. Not “I’m sorry”, or “Hey, I know it was fucked up of me to move thousands of miles away from you & my only grandchild and did not even say goodbye”, but just “Hi- I am calling to chat as if nothing ever happened”. I can’t even remember exactly what was said, but it must have been me again saying again that therapy was the only way we would have a relationship, and that she had to own her behavior. Pretty sure I just hung up. I really could not deal with bringing all that pain and chaos back into my life. She called on and off for what seemed like forever until I finally asked a friend to call her and ask her to stop. After a while, my cousin contacted me that my mother wanted to know if she could have my address. Said she “missed her kids”. I said sure, of course, thinking she was going to write to me, a card, something. Turns out she was probably updating her will to cut me out of it.


In December of 2013, I got a message to call family there. My mother was dead, having died the night before, probably of a heart attack. Another relative had been staying in the house with her and told me that she seemed to be going downhill those last few days. She also told me that she told her “You need to get the guest room ready, because my daughter and granddaughter are coming to visit soon”. Yay, way to go. Thanks for haunting me for the rest of my life with that news.


I could not go to her funeral. Not only was it too far to travel (and I am one of the working poor and have no disposable income what-so-ever), but I also just did not want to fucking go. It would not bring me any comfort; quite the opposite. She was dead, and we would never be able to make it better again. All my life I just wanted us to have a healthy relationship, and that was never going to happen. And I had no choice but to cut ties with her, and she did NOTHING to make it better. Nothing to own the pain she caused, how she could be estranged from her own children (I was not the only one), and not repair and resolve this. I will forever be lost in how she could live like that.


So where am I today? After being estranged for 7 years and her gone for almost 3, I am still trying to deal with it. There is so much emotional fallout. I have so many of my own issues in dealing with relationships and trust and pain. I have accepted the fact that it is just how it had to be, that I did all I could, and it just wasn’t meant to be. It will hurt me forever to know that she died and we were estranged for so long, but it is on her, not me. I just wanted her to be OK. She was never going to be OK.


Does that make it less painful? Not really. I think I really wanted to write to you to let you know—it hurts, it is going to hurt when your mother dies, and it will be a hurt that becomes a part of you, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it or lessen it. You have to keep those boundaries set, just like I did, because they left us no choice. Most of all I feel sad. Sad for a mother that had a life full of that much pain and was so disconnected from herself and reality. People that had loving, healthy relationships with their parents will never understand. But I do. I viscerally feel it whenever you talk about the grief you feel about your mother and the situation of your relationship with her. Big hug, buddy. Be glad for the people around you that love you. Appreciate them. And make peace with what you had to do. That is my daily goal, making peace with it all.


Thank you for your podcast. You have no idea how much you have helped me deal. No idea.


Love and best wishes—

Barbara in NC


P.S.–Just realized the I had the date wrong: She passed on 12/12/12. Truley awfulsome date to have burned into my brain. Thanks Universe!!!​


Samantha Finkelstein

The registered dietitian shares about the huge importance that was placed on food growing up in her family, how she used it to soothe instead of finding a healthy way to express her emotions and how it morphed into an eating disorder.

Read Sam’s blog   Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SamTheDietitian.

This episode is sponsored by the Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Community Walk

For tickets to Paul’s Sept 19th live show with guest Jackie Kashian or a video pass for all the podcasts that weekend at LAPodfest go to and use the offer code “MENTAL” for $5 off.

For tickets to Paul’s show in Brooklyn Sept 27th with guest Lane Moore go to


Jason Ickovitz

The Licensed Family and Marriage Therapist opens up about the verbal abuse he endured as a kid from a father who pushed him to excel in baseball, and how therapy not only helped him cope but made him realize he wanted to be a therapist.

This episode is sponsored by the Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Community Walk

For tickets to Paul’s Sept 19th live show with guest Jackie Kashian or a video pass for all the podcasts that weekend at LAPodfest go to  For $5 off use offer code “MENTAL”.

For tickets to Paul’s show in Brooklyn Sept 27th with guest Lane Moore go to

For mental health resources discussed on the show, visit Teenline at or HelpGuide at


Gladys A.

The 26 year-old adoptee (from Paraguay) shares about growing up with an emotionally disturbed sibling and single mom, experiencing racism at her all-white school, and turning to porn and escorting to pay the bills while pursuing her dream of screenwriting.  She currently volunteers at the Sex Workers Outreach Project LA Sex Workers Outreach Project LA


Jenny Pentland

The mother of four talks about her unstable upbringing by her famous mom (Roseanne Barr),  her stints in juvenile lock down facilities, her battles with food and her sometimes crippling anxiety.

Follow Jenny on Twitter @JennyPentland

This episode is sponsored by Luxe valet service.  Go to and use offer code Mental