Before I say anything, I want to credit Bessel Van Der Kolk, Kimberly Johnson, and Peter Levine for their work in the field of trauma and somatic therapy which has taught me so much about healing personal and trans-generational trauma. I also credit Alice Miller whose breakthrough work in child abuse brought to light what was formerly unacknowledged and is now the gold standard for child psychology. Additionally, I feel called to give credit to the patience and compassion of my mentors, recovery sponsors, and therapists. Their wisdom is the bedrock for all of my work.
A client recently asked me to explain what I meant by a "social nervous system" which prompted me to write this post. Please note that it's a HUGE topic, and I'm still very deep in the learning process. I have yet to fully dive into the work of Stephen Porges whose polyvagal theory is the basis for what is known as the social engagement system.
I use the phrase social nervous system as a metaphor for the way attachments and social awareness can influence our perceptions of (and reactions to) life. We are mammals, after all, and we rely on our instincts to keeps us alive in a precarious world .
During any kind of stimulating or threatening activation, the nervous system ideally responds instinctively to move us towards safety. Afterwards, a built in repair system discharges the energy, and we bounce back to normal functioning. If, however, we override our natural response because it goes against social cues and beliefs around what's appropriate or acceptable then we might experience a glitch in our system, otherwise known as trauma.
It's important to remember that the first assurance of safety always comes from our environment. Not just our physical environment but the people who coinhabit our environment. In a social sense, this begins with family and the attachments we formed with primary caregivers. Later it extends to religious communities, peer groups, professional networks, and society at large. Our survival brain recognizes that we need others to stay alive, and the extent to which we will go to earn and keep approval and acceptance varies case by case. Additionally, with the addition of the social media, our social nervous system has grown wider than ever before in history.
For anyone who was raised around dysfunctional family dynamics that include alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, sex addiction, codependence, mental illness, sexual abuse, narcissistic abuse, religious abuse, and any form of neglect or chronic invalidation, the social cues you relied on to feel safe were most likely distorted.
When children feel traumatized they depend on co-regulation with parents, siblings, and other adults to gain a sense of safety and security (regulation is any adjustment we make consciously or unconsciously to function normally). Kids need a mirror- first to validate their experience, then to help name feelings around the event, and finally encouragement to shake it off and self-soothe. If the people they depend on aren't regulated themselves, this poses a problem. If someone tries to normalize a child's traumatic experience by pretending that nothing is wrong (or any attempt to interrupt / shut down the natural process of discharge and repair) this adds trauma on top of trauma.
When cues from our social nervous system clash with personal instincts, our brain responds as though it's facing a life or death dilemma because it has to choose which system to trust. An invalidated sense of reality interrupts the natural process of repair, and in time becomes what is known as complex trauma.
To make things even more "complex", this trauma will repeat itself until it's repaired. We are constantly looking to others to mirror and affirm us, which is natural, but if we habitually choose unregulated people for this task we stay stuck in old trauma indefinitely.
Right now there are multiple generations of grown, invalidated children acting out of old trauma.
Many are caught between the instinct to repair (which can require stepping outside of family and social networks) and wanting to stay "safe" by not disrupting the status quo.
Looking at it from this vantage point, it doesn't seem unusual to see Greta Thunberg holding up a proverbial mirror and saying, "This is not okay. This is not fair. Please, adults, fix it." In other words, do the work of your own repair so that I don't inherit your trauma. Even though she is talking about the climate crisis, she is an archetype for uncovering the shadow and getting to the root of the problem.
And to be sure, it isn't fair. It's not fair to inherit the ignorance of past generations and be robbed of the pursuit of happiness. Paradoxically it's exactly what our elders and parents were forced to do when they were children, and it's what many of us in recovery do. Maybe the tipping point we are witnessing now will lead to some major evolutionary and spiritual breakthroughs.
Our country, as a collective body, holds deep ruptures that began with the genocide of First Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and every other crime against humanity ingrained in its history. It also holds the trauma of war and scarcity which led to present-day laws and practices that are unsustainable and have put the entire planet in crisis.
Our social nervous system is in need of deep repair. And it's happening! Just look at all the social movements that define this chapter in history.
"Creatives, healers, and empaths are in a time of power" -Kimberly Johnson
Pluto stations direct on Wednesday, making it the most influential planet along with Venus who rules the sun in Libra. Pluto is all about deep, transformational change, and Venus rules relationships and contracts- to ourselves, others, and the world. The bottom line is that by doing the work of recovery and repair NOW, we can become the co-regulators for our ruptured society. The world is in dire need of practical, compassionate approaches for healing systemic trauma, and as always it begins with us.
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