In last week’s email I made a humble attempt to condense and simplify some of the neuro-science behind our affective states when we are aroused (anxious), shut down (depressed) or calm. Our central nervous system is designed to detect danger and respond to threats in the environment in order to keep us safe. Unfortunately, trauma can keep us in a hyper-vigilant state where our brains begin to anticipate and even project peril onto relatively benign situations and interactions, as it begins to generalize from one bad experience onto all the experiences that include any similar variables, even if the context is different (i.e. “if it feels the same, it becomes the same,” so to speak). This is more efficient from an energy standpoint, and creates a greater sense of safety (even if it is false). The problem is that we may begin to anticipate certain outcomes and even set them up to happen, as we like predictability and consistency (even when the consequences are negative).
For example, if a child is routinely rejected by his peers, a neural pathway forms in his brain that conditions him to anticipate this outcome in future interactions. He may become more prone to interpret the behaviors of others as being devaluing of him. If someone does not return a phone call or text, or does not smile at him when walking by, the story he tells himself about how the other person behaved may go something like this: “That person doesn’t care about me or want to be my friend.” Even more damaging is the story he may tell himself about his own identity: “I am worthless” or “I am unlovable.”
Someone who had the benefit of healthy connected relationships growing up might have the same experience of a friend not returning a text of phone call but tell a very different story about it: “My friend may be having a busy week or not be feeling well.” This more securely attached person does not question the value and worth of his identity based on not receiving a return text or phone call but assumes that something has come up for the other person that has nothing to do with him.
I see this happen routinely when clients are working with their horses in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. A client will ask her horse for some engagement and the horse keeps eating grass or walks to another part of the round pen. The client then expresses an interpretation that reveals much about her current belief system: “My horse doesn’t like me” or “My horse clearly doesn’t want to be with me!” This is an opportunity to discuss the difference between the Objective and Subjectivecomponents of the interaction. The “objective” component is the horse’s actual observable behavior: the horse keeps grazing, or walks to another part of the pen. The “subjective” component of the interaction is the interpretation we make about this behavior, the story we tell ourselves about it, which reflects how we feel about ourselves.
The good news is that we can change our story! When we start hearing those familiar negative messages in our brain, we can pause and ask ourselves to step back from the interaction or situation and consider what just happened (objective) before we assign meaning to it (subjective). In order to have space to be curious about different possibilities that we might not have considered before, we must have a sense of safety. We can’t explore ideas and be curious about meaning when we feel threatened, because then we are too concerned about our survival. Calming our nervous system with some deep breaths and mindfulness (what do you see, hear, taste, touch or smell in this moment?) gives us a pause to consider what automatic scripts we are running, and how we might be missing what is actually happening in this moment.
We are seeing a great deal of deeply scripted, trauma-and-fear based reactions in our world today, to the COVID 19 pandemic, issues of race and policing, and other current events. Friendships and families are being fractured over these issues. Let’s all take a pause and consider what is objectiveand what is subjective about our situations, interactions, and reactions. Can we pause, reflect, and respond, rather than simply react? Can we change our story if it is not serving us well or isn’t actually true? I believe we can.