Tami De Coteau rebuilds brains for a living. Seriously. She also helps others learn how to do it and she was at Eastern Arizona College last week talking to about 100 people about it.
De Couteau is a licensed clinical psychologist who treats children and adults who suffer from complex trauma, neurodevelopmental disorders, grief, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking.
The North Dakota resident was brought to EAC by the Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition for its 16th Annual Southeastern Arizona Substance Awareness Symposium.
De Couteau spent several hours talking about trauma, its impact on brain development and the body and how teachers, family members and people in behavioral health can help those people who have suffered trauma.
The most critical brain development time happens prior to the age of 6, so if children have an attentive caregiver during that time period, they’ve got a better chance at having good future relationships, a sense of self-worth, resilience to stress, the ability to regulate their own emotions, make sense of life and create meaningful connections with others, the doctor said.
The brains of people who experience prenatal stress, prenatal substance exposure, birth trauma/early hospitalization, abuse of all kinds, neglect and traumatic incidents like violence, disasters, separations and multiple placements are wired differently because of those traumas.
When they feel stressed, their brain immediately puts them into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, De Couteau said. As a result, they often become chronically stressed, which then leads to illness, disease and problems with their moods.
Traumatized people also often suffer from impulsivity, anger, fail at school, turn to substances, are emotionally numb, are developmentally delayed and have relationship difficulties.
The good news is there are ways to rewire or rebuild brains, De Couteau said.
Building trust using a variety of methods is a large part of it as is seeing to people’s physiological needs and teaching them how to self-calm, she said.
The doctor told the crowd she once had a 9-year-old foster son who would have violent outbursts whenever he got stressed out over homework, especially when it came to spelling assignments. She started throwing in words like “booger” and “farted” and “snot” when quizzing him.
“Joy can not co-exist with fear and it disarms the stress response system. It optimizes the capacity of the brain’s ability to learn. When we’re teaching these children strategies we want to have fun and be playful. The more fun they have the way faster they will learn,” De Couteau said.
She also remembers another traumatized child who immediately shut down whenever he was stressed. He froze whether he was asked an innocuous question or a serious one, like “Did you break this toy?”
Over and over again, De Couteau said she would sit down with the boy, repeatedly reassure him she wasn’t going to hurt him and she loved him. She’d tell him she wasn’t angry and rub his back and then ask him to repeat “I broke the toy” after her and applaud him when he was able to say it. She’d then give him a hug, a kiss and tell him to go play.
After similar scenarios played out over and over again, the boy got to the point where he was able to talk about what happened rather than freeze.
Eventually, old neural pathways atrophied and new neural pathways opened, she said.
While it’s a faster process in children than adults, grownups can also have their brains rebuilt, she said.
De Coteau also spent time talking about the importance of educators and other professionals taking care of themselves.
In another room, attendees learned about the rise in Fentanyl in Arizona and how social media is making drugs more accessible to children.
Coalition Director Kathy Grimes said the symposium was a great success.
“This gives our community members a chance to gain information they may not be aware of otherwise,” Grimes said.