Adapting to and solving life’s challenges have forever been the hallmark of human evolution. Trauma and struggle are some of our most powerful catalysts for growth. In fact, trauma is the norm in life. It is how we manage what Shakespeare referred to as the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” that defines not only who we are but also who we are in a constant state of becoming (Crowther, ed., 2005; 3.1.63–4).
Resilient qualities are not only what we’re born with, but also the strengths that we build through encountering life’s challenges and developing the personal and interpersonal skills to meet them. It is one of life’s paradoxes that sometimes the worst circumstances can bring the best out of us. According to the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies performed by Robert Anda (2006) and his team at Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, we will all experience four or more serious life stressors that may be traumatizing, and according to positive psychology research, most of us will grow from them.
The idea of growth through suffering or pain is not a new one. The systematic study of it is. “Post traumatic growth” (PTG), a phrase coined by Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun—editors of The Handbook of Post Traumatic Growth—describes the positive self-transformation that people undergo through meeting challenges head on. It refers to a profound, life-altering response to adversity that changes us on the inside as we actively summon the kinds of qualities like fortitude, forgiveness, gratitude, and strength that enable us to not only survive tough circumstances but also thrive.
Connection and Disconnection
Our nervous systems are built to resonate with the nervous systems of others to achieve balance within the context of connection (Schore, 1999). Being connected to others in meaningful and cooperative ways is our biological imperative. Our highest and most evolved system, our social engagement system, is activated through our deep urge to communicate and cooperate. From the moment of birth our mind-body reaches out toward our primary attachment figures to establish the kind of connection that will allow us to survive and find our footing in the world. We fall back on our more primitive systems of defense—such as fight, flight or freeze—only when we fail to find a sense of resonance and safety in this connection (Porges, 2011).
The body of work that researchers Dan Siegel and Allan Schore have developed, which underlies interpersonal neurobiology, postulates that our skin does not define the boundaries of our beingness; from conception, we resonate in tune or out of tune with those around us (Schore, 1999). Through relational experiences that form and inform our sense of self and through our ability to be cared for and care about others, our capacity for empathy is formed and strengthened (Schore, 1999). As C.S. Lewis so succinctly put it, “it takes two to see one” (as cited in Dayton, 2007, p. 27). Those who study interpersonal neurobiology might then say that it takes two to be one.
“Neuroception,” a term coined by Stephen Porges (2011), former director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes our innate ability to use intricate, meaning-laden, barely perceptible mind-body signals to establish bonds and communicate our needs and intentions. While many of these communications are conscious, still more occur beneath the level of our awareness; and can be seen as part of our animal self (Porges, 2011).
Neuroception is a system that has evolved over time to enable humans and mammals to establish the mutually nourishing bonds that we need to survive and thrive. It is also our personal security system, it is designed to assess, in the blink of an eye, whether or not the situations that we’re encountering are safe or in some way threatening (Porges, 2011). According to Porges (2011), our neuroception tells us if we can relax and be ourselves or when we need to self-protect. If the signals that we’re picking up from others are cold, dismissive or threatening, that system sets off an inner alarm that is followed by a cascade of mind-body responses honed by eons of evolution to keep us from being harmed. That mind-body system sets off equivalent alerts whether we’re facing the proverbial saber-toothed tiger or a saber-toothed parent, older sibling, school bully or spouse. We brace for harm to our person on the inside as well as on the outside.
In pain-engendering exchanges, “people are not able to use their interactions to regulate their physiological states in relationship . . . they are not getting anything back from the other person that can help them to remain calm and regulated. Quite the opposite. The other person’s behavior is making them go into a scared, braced-for-danger state. Their physiology is being up regulated into a fight/flight mode,” says Porges (personal communication, n.d). A failure to successfully engage and create a sense of feeling connected, wanted, and cared about or to communicate needs and desires to those people we depend upon for our very survival can be experienced as traumatic. Relational trauma can occur at very subtle levels of engagement or a lack there of, as well as in its more obvious forms of living with abuse, neglect, illness or addiction.
Trauma in the home has a lasting impact. When those we rely on for our basic needs of trust, empathy, and dependency become abusive or neglectful, it constitutes a double whammy. Not only are we being hurt, but the very people we’d go to for solace are the ones who are hurting us. We stand scared and braced for danger in those moments, prepared by eons of evolution, ready to flee for safety or stand and fight. But if we can do neither, if escape seems impossible because we are children growing up trapped by our own size and dependency within pain-engendering families, then something inside of us freezes. Just getting through, just surviving the experience becomes paramount.
Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfeld, C., Perry, B. D., Dube, S. R., & Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 256(3), 174–86.
Crowther, John, (Ed.). (2005). No fear Hamlet. Retrieved from http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/
Dayton, T. (2007). Emotional sobriety: From relationship trauma to resilience and balance. Deerfield Beach, FL. Health Communications.
Porges, S. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiologial foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Schore, A. N. (1999). Affect regulation: A fundamental process of psychobiological development, brain organization, and psychotherapy. [Unpublished lecture]. Presented at the New York Freudian Society. New York, NY.
You are reading from Neuropsychodrama in the Treatment of Relational Trauma by Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP, to be released fall 2015.