Restoring Our Wellbeing Through Trusting Relationships

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Reestablishing trust in relationships is the key to unlocking our innate capacity for healing trauma.

Since the word trauma can conjure up many different ideas and images, let me take a moment here to define what I mean when I’m speaking about trauma. Trauma is the physiological response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. This state of overwhelm can cause feelings of helplessness, a disconnection from one’s sense of self and inhibit our ability to access the full range of our emotions. The three most widely accepted types of trauma are:

  • Acute trauma, which results from a single incident, such as accidents, illness, injury and loss of a loved one. 
  • Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged such as domestic violence or abuse.
  • Complex trauma is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, such as war, rape and torture.

The key thing to remember here is that trauma is not defined by a specific event or set of circumstances or an arbitrary severity scale. Rather, trauma stems from the way our mind and body interpret and respond to an experience in order to ensure our safety and survival. 

One of my favorite practitioners in the field of trauma, Dr. Peter Levine, wrote a bestselling book in 1997 titled, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma where he exquisitely details our body’s innate capacity for healing. Dr. Levine begins this incredible process with an illustration of the build up to the moment when a prey animal is being hunted by a predator. For those of us who are big animal lovers these scenes can be nail biting to watch or imagine. Yet, they serve as powerful examples of how our bodies are actually naturally designed to handle experiences of trauma. In fact, when we are immersed in safe environments, our bodies know precisely how to return to a state of wellbeing. 

To illustrate our capacity for healing and overall resilience, let’s take a closer look at the trauma response Dr. Levine details through the experience of another animal. Imagine that you are an impala (a small deer-like animal) on the African bushveld. You’re grazing peacefully with your friends and family. While you and your entire herd always keep an eye out for potential danger, your body is deeply relaxed, present, peaceful and even playful in the absence of any threat. 

Then suddenly the wind shifts. You catch the scent of a predator. Your heart rate increases and you begin to orient to your surroundings more closely so you can prepare to fight or flee as the circumstances warrant.  Out of the corner of your eye you catch sight of a leopard that’s managed to sneak it’s way up to the herd. As you take in the situation you realize he’s much too close to you. You take off in a full sprint. The leopard begins to chase you. Your body is in a high state of activation. There’s no time to think. Your autonomic nervous system has completely taken over giving you maximum flight or fight energy to respond to the danger in the best way possible. 

Unfortunately, the leopard catches you, swiftly pulls you to the ground, wraps it’s jaws around your throat and does it’s best to suffocate you. Your body is now completely frozen and shut down. You’re limp, nearly unconscious and dissociated from your body. Interpreting your limp body as evidence of a kill, the leopard releases you to pursue another impala. Having not endured a mortal wound, your autonomic nervous system recognizes that the danger has passed after only a matter of seconds to a few short minutes. As if you were starting to thaw out from a frozen block of ice, your body shakes uncontrollably to discharge the rush of adrenaline moving through your system in the moments before you collapsed in a state of freeze. After a fit of vigorous shaking, your body feels alive, calm and fully present. You jump up and return to the comfort and safety of your supportive herd. Having fully processed the acute trauma of the attack, you are free to fully enjoy the experience of being alive without any lingering attachments to the attack. 

If you’re feeling courageous here’s a YouTube clip where you can watch this exact unfolding between an impala and a leopard. Don’t worry, I’ll save you the suspense; it ends well.

Miraculously, our autonomic nervous systems are oriented very similarly to the impala’s, which enables us to move through states of rest and digest, flight or fight as well as freeze to help us navigate traumatic events. Just like the impala, our bodies are innately designed to meet moments of overwhelming stress and thaw out from a frozen, dissociated state by shaking, trembling, screaming, and crying to discharge the surge of adrenaline that courses through our system during acute, chronic and complex traumatic experiences. Experiencing a safe environment where the intelligence of our bodies can naturally thaw out is key to restoring a state of wellbeing to engage with others. So why do so many of us become stuck looping in the ripple effects of unprocessed trauma and lean towards avoiding connection with others? 

Unfortunately, unlike the rest of our animal kin, we human beings face an added layer of challenge in our experience that often prevents us from being able to move through and discharge traumatic events as smoothly as we witness with the impala. That added layer is safety, or the absence of safety, in our relationships. Once danger has passed for the impala she returns to an abundance of safety and support from her friends and family in a village-like setting where she feels secure to be whole-heartedly herself. Her environment is fairly predictable and she doesn’t need to be on guard for a potentially threatening agenda from her fellow herd members.

When we take a closer look to compare our own story, it’s a very different picture. Many of us are born into a family environment that embodies a type of complex trauma often described as generational trauma. This is the transmission (or sending down to younger generations) of the oppressive or traumatic effects of a historical event, or series of events. Here’s an example. 

A father who was drafted into war returns home a few years later with severe PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). His daughter Amanda is longing for a safe connection with her beloved dad. She misreads her father’s PTSD symptoms of shame and anger as a message that she is not worthy of his love. Her childhood is defined by a lack of safety with her father as she endures the internal conflict between fearing her father’s anger and simultaneously seeking his approval. Amanda transitions into adulthood and gives birth to her son, Sam. Amanda does the best she can but in the absence of any past safe relationships from which to draw upon, she lacks the tools necessary to create safety between herself and Sam. Overwhelmed by her inner demons of inadequacy and depression, she drowns herself in alcohol in an unconscious attempt to manage her pain. Sam witnesses his mom’s highly unstable behavior and concludes that people are unreliable and can’t be trusted. Sam withdraws into the safety of his own inner world and avoids connecting with others. It’s important to note here that Sam’s avoidance is not a choice, but a learned behavior passed down to him through generational trauma. 

This story illustrates that humans, unlike most of the animal kingdom, experience trauma at the hands of members of their own species, and even their own families. While each person does the best they can with the cards they were dealt, all too often, our primary caretakers are unconsciously passing down a complex web of generational trauma that disrupts our ability to feel safe and supported in the presence of other human beings. It is exactly this lack of a genuine sense of trust and safety with our fellow human beings that keeps our nervous system stuck on high alert, guarding against an environment that’s not yet not safe enough to discharge the overwhelming pain we experience.

The good news is our animal bodies have not forgotten how to heal and transform the effects of trauma. I still remember the moment I finished Dr. Levine’s book. I was eighteen years old. I started jumping up and down on my bed shouting, “Yes! Yes! Somebody gets it! Somebody understands our capacity to transform the effects of trauma.” It would take another twelve years, when I reached my early thirties, to fully understand that yes, while our bodies are incredibly skilled at moving through experiences of trauma and returning to a state of wellbeing, having safe relationships and a genuine sense of belonging are vital elements that allow our innate healing process to unfold. 

At this point you might connect with a response I often hear from my clients: If you’re telling me my healing process is dependent on feeling truly safe in my relationships with other people then I might as well throw in the towel now and just give up. I’ll share with you what I share with all my clients who are experiencing an absence of safe relationships. Most often, our trauma originates in relationship with others and the path toward healing must continue in relationship with others. We can’t live our lives in a vacuum of isolation. Our bodies and psyches are hardwired to seek love and connection with others. So it’s going to take experiences of intentional repair with one another to truly restore an environment of safety. Only then can the intelligence of our bodies and nervous system discharge the somatic energy (crying, shivering, shaking) that is trapped in our bodies. 

So where do we begin? The first step is reconnecting with ourselves. I invite you to take a moment to ground yourself through a short series of long inhales and exhales. Allow yourself to sift through your memories without judgment. Concentrate on someone with whom you feel safe to be your whole self. This could be a childhood friend, a family member, a friendly neighbor, your romantic partner, your cat or dog. Allow yourself to think of anyone from your past or present. If you can’t think of someone you know then try imagining spending a day with your favorite tv or movie character. 

As you imagine being in this person’s presence, notice what happens inside your body. What do your muscles feel like? Do you feel warmth, cold, tingling? Do you feel excitement, calm, or playfulness? Spending a little time in gentle mediation on this can help us gain a very important and visceral touchstone for what it’s like to truly feel safe with another being. Allow yourself to embrace your unique indicators of safety such as a soft, relaxed, expansive chest, a smile that spreads across your face or a feeling that your whole body can take in a sigh of relief. Now I invite you to set a personal intention to notice when these sensations are present and when they are not. Think of these as your baseline indicators for safety.

To extend this practice further, ask yourself what you need to sustain and even deepen this sense of safety with this person. It may sound silly but taking the time to get to know when we are feeling safe in the presence of another human being is a pretty big deal. Once we can regain more conscious awareness for our own needs, we can take the final step to begin to communicate with others about it. Seeking repair with other human beings and sharing the specifics of how we feel in their presence can take a tremendous amount of courage. Yet, when you take a leap of faith to talk to those you love about your sense of safety, you set in motion an important domino effect. Letting someone know the specific gestures, behaviors and comments that stir up a strong sense of safety and belonging, not only deepens your ability to support one another, it also cultivates an environment where the innate healing capacity of our bodies can once again thrive.

With Much Love and Immense Respect,
Koelle Simpson