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