Survival vs. Connection: A tale of two systems in the body and their role in healing
It is really great that there is so much more understanding of trauma, how we experience it, what happens in the body during trauma, and what lingers on afterwards if we cannot properly process our extremely painful experiences. In fact, some people would define trauma, or post traumatic stress, exactly that way…it is what happens in our bodies when we cannot properly process our extremely painful experiences. So they disappear into the storage boxes of our muscles, often becoming muscle tension, eventually even physically painful, and often challenging brain patterning. Sometimes it is helpful to know that we are all born knowing how to heal our hurts. When a baby is hurt s/he cries. When s/he is held close, treated tenderly, kept safe, allowed to process out the hurt, s/he heals. Sometimes we really wish our parents and other caregivers had understood that and were able to provide that. Instead we all were too often taught it wasn’t allowed, our natural healing mechanisms, our ability to discharge our hurts, was taken away, and sometimes that was done very painfully. Know anyone who ever heard, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about?” And so we put the healing processes away and we even become afraid to use them.
If you have experienced trauma, you may know personally how challenging it is to reclaim that healing ability to allow yourself to feel and discharge your emotions. The unconscious mind, or the parts of us that developed in us to protect us from more hurt, make sure we don’t do it…don’t do what is likely to get you more hurt, and so we put it away, in the storage box that the body is. It is good that so many of us now are learning how to allow ourselves to feel our emotions, to acknowledge them, and validate them, even if it is still hard to allow their expression. We can move in that direction with safe people who let us know it is ok in their presence to be with how we feel, and to let it have its expression.
We now understand how important it is to learn how to work well with our own emotions, and also how important it is to be in our bodies. This is new and evolutionary in the history of human beings! So if you are working in this direction, I often tell my clients, you are a pioneer in the evolution of the human race!
However, for trauma survivors, sometimes tuning in to the body can be really scary. We survivors have to learn first that the body can be a friend, not just the bearer of painful emotions and old memories of physical and emotional pain. We can slowly have experiences allowing ourselves to tune in to the good experiences, the enjoyment, the tenderness in the body, the safe, respectful touch. We can learn that in the present moment, in present time, we can be safe in the body. And the more we bring present time into those parts of the brain that carry the old emotions, the more we heal and realize that all of those things are not happening now, and don’t have to happen any more, and we don’t have to use, now, the old protective patterns we learned we had to use back then. I believe it is good for trauma survivors to find people who can help them do that, to become safely embodied.
A powerful tool for healing trauma is to regularly turn on on the Human Connection System, sometimes called the Social Engagement System, and all the wonderful chemicals in the body that go along with that system of human connection: the oxytocin cascade. Many of us, especially those of us who experienced trauma, have the adrenaline system turned on all the time in the body. It can so easily become habitual, what your body does all the time automatically, because it had to do it frequently “back then.” The adrenalin system is an important system in the body when we need it. If you're doing something really hard or stressful, you want that chemical boost it gives you. It turns on everything that helps you run or fight or do something big and challenging. But for most of us healing from trauma, or just living in the world, we really don’t have to “run or fight” as much as the unconscious mind often thinks. But the fight/flight, or adrenalin system so often becomes the automatic “go to” system, any time anything even looks like stress.
It is really important to be able to turn the fight/flight system off in healthy ways when we don’t really need it. It is important to turn on what is actually the most evolved form of protection that the body has, the relational, or human connection system, sometimes also called the calm, connection system in the body. It is what you would have used to protect you, if it could have…if those around you had been able to respond.
It's interesting to compare these two systems in the body and of course to understand we need both. The oxytocin cascade is only newly realized in the last 20 years as a powerful physical system in the body. It is largely stimulated by touch and connection, and produces many of the positive, calm chemicals in the body, a cascade of calming chemicals that help one relax. It is associated with warmth, fullness, contentment, relaxation, safety, security, being happy, relatedness, and being companionable. It facilitates and is stimulated by social activity and sexual activity, and it is also about contemplative stillness. It turns on the higher senses, like intuition, compassion, and emotional sensitivity. It brings circulation to the deeper organs, and also to the skin and senses. It lowers blood pressure, muscle tension, stress hormones, heart rate, and pain! It raises digestion, nutritional uptake, and immune response, and promotes cell division, so it is sometimes called the growth system in the body, or the trust system in the body.
But let’s contrast the adrenalin or the fight/flight system in the body. This is the adrenalin cascade and all the accompanying harsh chemicals, which is like running your car on high speed all the time, so it wears things out if left on all the time. It is stimulated by pain, and associated with danger, cold, hunger, tension, and makes one alert, vigilant and suspicious. It is high energy burning, and is about challenge and performance and high activity. Sometimes you need this, and athletes love it, for a time. But it also means low circulation to the inner organs, more circulation to the large, motor muscles of the extremities. (Remember, it helps you fight or run!) It also raises blood pressure, muscle tension, stress hormones, raises heart rate, glucose,(as in diabetes) and makes your blood thicker. (So if you are injured in a fight, you won’t lose so much blood! Nice when you need it, but not so good when you don’t. Think heart issues.) It slows down digestion and tells the body no time for that as you have a big job to do. (Think chronic heartburn.) It is sometimes called the preserve system in the body, i.e., turn off everything that is not essential as we have a big job to do! It is also called the fear system in the body.
I encourage the reader to take a pen and paper and list the two systems next to each other. It is really interesting to see how they line up on opposite sides, how they do opposite things in the body.
Comparison of Two Systems of Protection in the Body
FIGHT/FLIGHT SYSTEM HUMAN CONNECTION SYSTEM
Adrenalin Cascade and accompanying Oxytocin Cascade and accompanying harsh chemicals calm, positive chemicals
stimulated by pain stimulated by touch
associated with cold associated with warmth
danger safety/ security
alert, vigilant, suspicious social interaction/sexual activity
energy burning contemplative/stillness/calm
high activity companionable
large muscle groups sensitive,higher senses like intuition
low circulation to inner organs more circulation to deeper organs
more circulation to large muscles more circulation to skin, and senses
raises blood pressure lowers blood pressure
raises muscle tension lowers muscle tension
raises stress hormones lowers stress hormones
increases heart rate decreases heart rate, lowers pain
raises glucose (diabetes?) raises digestion
faster coagulation of blood higher nutritional uptake
(blood is thicker) raises immune response
slows down digestion.. promotes cell division
THE FEAR SYSTEM IN THE BODY THE TRUST SYSTEM IN THE BODY
Again it is a system we need in the body when we need it, but it is not so good to have it turned on all the time as so many of us do in our high stress lifestyles. You want to be able to turn it off and turn on your other system. So what does that? Gentle touch is a big one, but also hanging out with friends, being social, playing, meditation, being sexual, cuddling, kissing, walks in nature, doing fun things, connecting, and being listened to in presence.
But so do high fat foods, (as in comfort foods) alcohol, nicotine, and the physical action of smoking, some recreational drugs. If you don’t have healthy ways of turning off adrenalin, you may head yourself toward one of these not so healthy ways.
There are great places and opportunities for lowering stress levels and turning on this other powerful system, and there are lots of choices by which to do that. Any kind of gentle bodywork…not the “deep tissue” kind we so often want. While it might help your sore muscles feel better, or feel contacted, that actually doesn’t turn on this system. Gentle massage, and other bodywork with presence, like Rosen Method Bodywork, which is really mind/body/emotional work, Somatic Experiencing, Healing Touch, aquatic massage, gentle Shiatsu, all help this system turn on. Therapists who have great presence also help turn this on and there are many therapies now that that use mindfulness like Hakomi, or Sensorimotor Psychotherapy for Trauma, and others. My favorite therapy is Self-Leadship, also called IFS or Internal Family Systems. It develops mindfulness and connection with the deep parts of yourself, and with the young parts of you that were hurt. It brings your Self as a resource, in deep connection, to those young hurt parts, and because your Self can now be the resource, the protective patterned parts can learn to relax.
I like therapies that are about this: healing old emotions and negative belief systems through deep connection beyond the history of experiences and negative beliefs, to the deep parts of the Self, the essence of the human being, to who you really are, not who you think you are. I like connection to the body and the life force flowing through, and to the Beyond, however you name that, a holistic approach to physical, mental and emotional health, and deeper consciousness. And I like turning on the most evolved form of protection you have, your human connection system, and the healing oxytocin cascade! Remember there are lots of ways: gentle touch, holding hands, sitting close together, side by side, hanging out with friends, being social, playing, meditation, being sexual, cuddling, kissing, walks in nature, doing fun things, connecting, and being listened to in presence. Let’s have a lot more of that in the world, shall we?
Dorothea Hrossowyc, MA, RMPA
Rosen Method Bodywork and Empowerment
Self Led Transformational Counseling
At Green Lotus Yoga and Healing Center, Lakeville, MN
At Connections, Northfield, MN
And at Hermitage Farm Center For Healing, Rochester, MN